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The wheel of fire 

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The Wheel of Fire 



THE WHEEL OF FIRE 

Interpretation of Shakespeare's Tragedy 



by G. WILSON KNIGHT 

Introduction by T. s. ELIOT 



Meridian Books 

THE WORLD PUBLISHING COMPANY 
Cleveland and New York 



A MERIDIAN BOOK 

Published by The World Publishing Company 

2231 West iioth Street, Cleveland 2, Ohio 

Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1930. 

Fourth revised and enlarged edition published by 

Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1949. 

First Meridian printing (sth revised edition) February 1957. 

Sixth printing November 1964. 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced 

in any form without written permission from the publisher, 

except for brief passages included in a review 

appearing in a newspaper or magazine. 

Reprinted by arrangement with Macmillan & Co., Inc. 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 57-6680 

Printed in the United States of America. 6wrii64 



You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave : 

Thou art a soul in bliss ; but I am bound 

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears 

Do scald like molten lead, KING LEAR, IF. vii. 45 



Two truths are told, 

As happy prologues to the swelling act 

Of the imperial theme. MACBETH, I, in. 127 



CONTENTS 

PREFATORY NOTE vii 

INTRODUCTION. By T. S. ELIOT xv 

I. On the Principles of Shakespeare Interpre 
tation i 

II. The Embassy of Death: an Essay on Hamlet 17 

III. The Philosophy of Troilus and Cressida 47 

IV. Measure for Measure and the Gospels 73 

V. The Othello Music 97 

VI. Brutus and Macbeth 120 

VII. Macbeth and the Metaphysic of Evil 140 

VIII. King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque 160 

IX. The Lear Universe 177 

X. The Pilgrimage of Hate : an Essay on Timon 

of Athens 207 

XL Shakespeare and Tolstoy 240 

XII. Symbolic Personification 249 

XIII. The Shakespearian Metaphysic 257 

XIV. Tolstoy's Attack on Shakespeare (1934) 270 

XV. Hamlet Reconsidered ( 1 947) 298 
Appendix Two Notes on the Text of Hamlet (1947) 326 



PREFATORY NOTE 

THIS re-issue of what was except for my monograph 
Myth and Miracle (lately reprinted in The Crown of Life) 
my first book, contains the original text complete with 
only some insignificant, mainly typographical, alterations. 
My two original essays on Hamlet> 'Hamlet's Melancholia* 
and 'The Embassy of Death', are, for tidiness, grouped as 
one. For the rest, I have made no attempt at correction of 
matter, thought or style, preferring to let the various essays 
stand as documents of their time 'with all their imperfec 
tions on their heads', while hoping that they may be found 
to have worn not too badly during the years since their 
first publication in 1930. Where there are additions, as 
with my 'additional notes' and my three new essays, I have 
dated them. Of these essays, the first, on 'Tolstoy's Attack', 
was originally published as an English Association pamphlet 
and is reprinted here by kind permission of the Association. 
The other two, "Hamlet Reconsidered' and 'Two Notes on 
the Text of Hamlet 1 are quite new. I give line-references to 
the Oxford Shakespeare. 

On looking back over the last two decades I feel that a 
short retrospective comment may help to clear up certain 
misunderstandings. My animadversions as to 'character* 
analysis were never intended to limit the living human 
reality of Shakespeare's people. They were, on the contrary, 
expected to loosen, to render flexible and even fluid, what 
had become petrified. Nor was I at all concerned to repudiate 
the work of A. C. Bradley. Though Bradley certainly on j 
occasion pushed 'character' analysis to an unnecessary 
extreme, yet he it was who first subjected the atmospheric, 
what I have called the 'spatial', qualities of the Shake 
spearian play to a considered, if rudimentary, comment. 
Indeed, my own first published manifesto concerning my 
general aims in Shakespearian interpretation, an article in 
the year 1928 in the old Shakespeare Review under the 
editorship of A. K. Chesterton, defined those aims as the 
application to Shakespeare's work in general of the methods 
already applied by Bradley to certain outstanding plays. It 
was, and is, my hope that my own labours will be eventually 



Viii PREFATORY NOTE 

regarded as a natural development within the classic 
tradition of Shakespearian study. 1 

But here again a distinction is necessary. It has been 
objected that I write of Shakespeare as indeed did 
Coleridge, Hazlitt and Bradley as a philosophic poet 
rather than a man of the stage. That is, in its way, true: and 
it is true that I would not regard the well-known com 
mentaries of Harley Granville-Barker as properly within 
this central, more imaginative and metaphysical, tradition. 
Nevertheless, my own major interest has always been 
Shakespeare in the theatre; and to that my written work 
has been, in my own mind, subsidiary. But my experience 
as actor, producer and play-goer leaves me uncompromising 
in my assertion that the literary analysis of great drama in 
terms of theatrical technique accomplishes singularly little. 
Such technicalities should be confined to the theatre from 
which their terms are drawn. The proper thing to do about 
a play's dramatic quality is to produce it, to act in it, to 
attend performances; but the penetration of its deeper 
meanings is a different matter, and such a study, though 
the commentator should certainly be dramatically aware, 
and even wary, will not itself speak in theatrical terms. 
There is, of course, an all-important relation (which I 
discuss fully in my Principles of Shakespearian Production} \ 
and indeed the present standard^ of professional Shake 
spearian production appears to me inadequate precisely 
because these deeper meanings have not been exploited. 
The play's surface has been merely translated from book to 
stage, it has not been re-created from within; and that is 
why our productions remain inorganic. 

So much, then, for what this new 'poetic interpretation* 
is not. What, in short, can we say that it is? 

A recent account by Mr. Lance L. Whyte of modern 
developments in physics, which appeared in The Listener of 
July 1 7th, 1947, can help us here. Mr. Whyte explains 
how the belief in rigid 'particles* with predictable motions 
has been replaced by concepts of 'form, pattern and sym 
metry* ; and not by these as static categories only but rather 

1 Parts of my essay 'The Lear Universe* constitute an expansion under changed focal length 
of material first indicated by Bradley (1953). 



PREFATORY NOTE IX 

by something which he calls the 'transformation of patterns*. 
For 'particles' put 'characters' and we have a clear Shake 
spearian analogy. Even the dates, roughly, fit: 'From about 
1870 to 1910' these 'particles' were thought to hold the 
key 'to all the secrets of nature'; but since then the 
conception has been found inadequate. Rigidly distinct 
and unchanging atoms have become 'patterns* occupying 
certainly a 'measurable region of space' but yet themselves, 
as patterns, dynamic, self-transforming. The pattern itself 
moves; space and time coalesce; such is the mysterious 
'design of nature'. But, as too with Shakespeare, the old 
theories are not to be peremptorily dismissed. They are 
merely to be regarded as 'less than the utterly complete 
explanations they were once thought to be' : 

They have therefore to be re-interpreted as part of some more 
comprehensive approach. The answer may be that we must not think 
of patterns as if they were built out of particles, but that what we have 
called particles, may ultimately be better explained as components of 
patterns. 

The argument against excessive 'character' study could not 
be more concisely expressed. 

Most important of all, however, is Mr. Whyte's stress 
on the 'development and transformation of patterns'. 
Though the 'causal analysis of detailed parts' must be 
continued as before, we are henceforth to 'pay more atten 
tion to certain aspects of phenomena which have been 
neglected till now, like pattern-tendency and transforma 
tion'. So 'the task before physics is to discover a new prin 
ciple which can unite -permanence and change" ; and here, in 
the words I have italicized, we have our key to the literary 
problem. 

Long before reading this article I had felt a certain 
similarity between the methods of what I call 'poetic inter 
pretation* and what I vaguely understood by the theory of 
Einstein. Mr. Whyte observes that Einstein's relativity 
theory served to shift emphasis from individual entities to 
their observable 'relationships' ; just as, in my early essays 
on Hamlet^ I tried, at the risk of offending those who had 
(very reasonably) taken the play's hero to their hearts, to 
see that hero not merely as an isolated 'character' rigidly 



X PREFATORY NOTE 

conceived, but in direct and living relation to his own 
dramatic environment. That, too, has been my method with 
other plays; and it is precisely such a 'relationship' that lies 
regularly behind Shakespeare's use of symbolism as distinct 
from persons. As for Mr. Whyte's closely similar thought 
of uniting permanence and change, the analogies are yet 
more obvious. My own investigations have continually 
forced me to speak, directly or metaphorically, in terms of 
a space-time unity, which is yet only to be properly known 
as a unity in so far as it has first been accepted as a duality. 
It is, as it were, the space-time 'relationship* that is central 
and so all-important: as with the interaction of spatial 
atmosphere and plot-sequence in any one Shakespearian 
play; the single tempest-music opposition binding and 
interpenetrating the whole succession of plays; the 'dome' 
and 'river* symbolisms of the Romantics and all that this 
implies (especially for the understanding of Keats, whose 
peculiar artistry can be shown to mature from an exquisite 
fusion of these, or similar, impressions). When actual stage- 
production is our argument, we have the fitting of action to 
setting. Poetry itself may be defined as pre-eminently a 
blend of the dynamic and the static, of motion and form; 
and, at the limit, the perfectly integrated man, or superman, 
is to be conceived as a creature of superb balance, poise 
and grace. Interpretation is, then, merely the free use of a 
faculty that responds with ease, and yet with full conscious 
ness of the separate elements involved, to this space-time 
fusion, or relationship, this eternity, of art, in which every 
point on the sequence is impregnated by the whole. It is, 
moreover, something which, once admitted, can be applied 
widely to literature of consequence: it is as much at home 
with ih&Agamemnon of Aeschylus as with Hassan and Journey's 
End. There is nothing peculiarly Shakespearian about it. 

Mr. Whyte himself sees the developments he describes 
as part of a general movement of the twentieth-century 
mind, noting similar tendencies in both biology and psy 
chology. It would be sad were literary investigation to be 
allowed to lag too far behind these more virile sciences. 
Properly handled it might go some way towards meeting 
Mr. Whyte's expectation of a newly comprehensive system 



PREFATORY NOTE 



of knowledge 'covering the organic as well as the inorganic 
world, and therefore relevant also to man himself. 

Exactly what started me, personally, on this quest it 
would be hard to say. I was whole-heartedly devoted to 
Shakespeare especially to Shakespeare acted from a very 
early age. Perhaps what Mr. Eliot calls the 'restless demon' 
to interpret dates from a question posed suddenly by my 
brother during a performance of The Tempest to which I 
had persuaded him to accompany me : 'What does it mean ?* 
For many years I have been labouring at the answer. 

This note must not be allowed to grow into an essay of 
reminiscence. Let me conclude by expressing my thanks to 
Messrs. Methuen & Co. for being willing, at so difficult a 
time as this, to offer me the privilege and advantage of their 
imprint. 

G. W. K. 

Leeds* 194.7 



My remarks, here and elsewhere, on 'character' should 
be compared with Strindberg's very similar arguments in 
his preface to Lady Julia. 

G. W. K. 

Leeds* 1953 



Among the writings which seem to have influenced my 
early work I should like, in retrospect, to list Mr. John 
Masefield's Romanes Lecture, Shakespeare and Spiritual 

Life (1914)- . 

My theory of spatial interpretation has now been con 
siderably extended also in Laureate of Peace, Ch. III. 

G. W. K. 
Leeds^ 1955 



The Wheel of Fire 



INTRODUCTION 

IT has taken me a long time to recognize the justifica 
tion of what Mr. Wilson Knight calls 'interpretation*. 
In my previous scepticism I am quite ready to admit the 
presence of elements of pure prejudice, as well as of some 
which I defend. I have always maintained, not only that 
Shakespeare was not a philosophical poet in the sense of 
Dante and Lucretius; but also, what may be more easily 
overlooked, that 'philosophical poets' like Dante and Lu 
cretius are not really philosophers at all. They are poets 
who have presented us with the emotional and sense equiva 
lent for a definite philosophical system constructed by a 
philosopher even though they may sometimes take little 
liberties with the system. To say that Shakespeare is not a 
philosophical poet like these is not to say anything very 
striking or important. It is more worth while to point out 
that my notion of Dante or Lucretius as providing the 
'emotional equivalent* for a philosophical system expressed 
by someone else, is not to be pressed to a literal point for 
point parallelism, as in the old theory of mind and body. 
The poet has something to say which is not even necessarily 
implicit in the system, something which is also over and 
above the verbal beauty. In other words, the pattern of 
Cyrene or that of the Schools is not the whole of the pattern 
of the carpet of Lucretius or of Dante. This other part of 
the pattern is something to be found in the work of other 
great poets than those who are 'philosophical* I say of 
other, not of all for that would exclude Horace or Dryden 
or Malherbe. It is also to be found in the work of some 
(again, not of all) of the greatest novelists: certainly of 
George Eliot, and of Henry James who gave the phrase its 
currency. And of this sort of 'pattern* the most elaborate, 
the most extensive, and probably the most inscrutable is 
that of the plays of Shakespeare. For one thing, in Dante 
the pattern is interwoven chiefly with the systematic pattern 
which he set himself, and the mystery and excitement lies in 
trying to trace its relations and differences the relation, 
and the personal variations in another mode, between for 



xv 



INTRODUCTION 



example the Thomist doctrine of Love, the poetic provencal 
tradition, and the direct experience of Dante with its modifi 
cations under philosophical and literary influences. But the 
philosophic pattern is far more a help than a hindrance, it 
is indeed a -priori a help. Furthermore, Dante in his kind 
of poetry was doing exactly what he liked with his own 
material; and the practical exigencies of a badly paid play 
wright, popular entertainer, sometimes actor, and some 
times busy producer, can only confuse us in our study of 
Shakespeare. Then again, with Dante the philosophic 
system gives us a kind of criterion of consciousness^ and the 
letter to Can Grande confirms it; just as of a lesser writer, 
but no less genuine a pattern-maker, Henry James, we 
have some gauge of consciousness in his very nearness to 
us in time and civilization, in the authors he studied and 
the constant play of his criticism upon his own work. But 
with Shakespeare we seem to be moving in an air of Cim 
merian darkness. The conditions of his life, the conditions 
under which dramatic art was then possible, seem even 
more remote from us than those of Dante. We dare not 
treat him as completely isolated from his contemporary 
dramatists, as we can largely isolate Dante. We see his 
contemporaries for the most part as busy hack writers of 
untidy genius, sharing a particular sense of the tragic 
mood: this sense, such as it is, merging into the mere 
sense of what the public wanted. They confuse us by the 
fact that what at first appears to be their 'philosophy or life* 
sometimes turns out to be only a felicitous but shameless 
lifting of a passage from almost any author, as those of 
Chapman from Erasmus. This, indeed, is a habit which 
Shakespeare shares; he has his Montaigne, his Seneca, and 
his Machiavelli, or his Anti-Mach&vel like the others. 
And they adapted, collaborated, and overlaid each other to 
the limits of confusion. 

Nevertheless, they do seem, the best of Shakespeare's 
contemporaries, to have more or less faint or distinct pat 
terns. (I was tempted to use the word 'secret* as an alterna 
tive to 'pattern', but that I remembered the unlucky example 
of Matthew Arnold, who said much about the 'secret of 
Jesus', a secret which having been revealed only and finally 



INTRODUCTION xvii 

to Arnold himself, turned out to be a pretty poor secret 
after all.) In Marlowe, surely, we feel the search for one; in 
Chapman a kind of blundering upon one; in Jonson the 
one clear and distinct, slight but much more serious than it 
looks, pattern. There is something in the Revenger's Tragedy^ 
but one play does not make a pattern; and Middleton com 
pletely baffles me; and as for Ford and Shirley, I suspect 
them of belonging to that class of poets not unknown to 
any age, which has all of the superficial qualities, and none 
of the internal organs, of poetry. But a study of these 
dramatists only renders our study of Shakespeare more 
difficult. The danger of studying him alone is the danger of 
working into the essence of Shakespeare what is just con 
vention and the dodges of an overworked and underpaid 
writer; the danger of studying him together with his contem 
poraries is the danger of reducing a unique vision to a mode. 

I once affirmed that Dante made great poetry out of a 
great philosophy of life; and that Shakespeare made equally 
great poetry out of an inferior and muddled philosophy of 
life. I see no reason to retract that assertion: but I ought to 
elucidate it. When I say 'great poetry' I do not suggest 
that there is a pure element in poetry, the right use of words 
and cadences, which the real amateur of poetry can wholly 
isolate to enjoy. The real amateur of poetry certainly 
enjoys, is thrilled by, uses of words which to the untrained 
reader seem prosaic. I would say that only the real amateur 
of poetry, perhaps, if this is not too presumptuous, only the 
real practitioner, can enjoy a great deal of poetry which the 
untrained reader dismisses as clever paraphrase of prose; 
certainly, to enjoy Pope, to have an analytic enough mind 
to enjoy even second rate eighteenth-century poetry, is a 
better test of 'love of poetry 1 than to like Shakespeare, 
which is no test at all : I can tell nothing from the fact that 
you enjoy Shakespeare, unless I know exactly how you 
enjoy him. But the greatest poetry, like the greatest prose, 
has a doubleness; the poet is talking to you on two planes at 
once. So I mean not merely that Shakespeare had as refined 
a sense for words as Dante; but that he also has this double- 
ness of speech. 

Now it is only a personal prejudice of mine, that I prefer 



INTRODUCTION 



poetry with a clear philosophical pattern, if it has the other 
pattern as well, to poetry like Shakespeare's. But this pre 
ference means merely a satisfaction of more of my own 
needs, not a judgement of superiority or even a statement 
that I enjoy it more as poetry. I like a definite and dogmatic 
philosophy, preferably a Christian and Catholic one, but 
alternatively that of Epicurus or of the Forest Philosophers 
of India ; and it does not seem to me to obstruct or diminish 
either the 'poetry' or the other pattern. Among readers, 
probably both types, that of Dante and that of Shakespeare, 
suffer equal transformation. Dante will be taken as a mere 
paraphraser of Aquinas, occasionally bursting through his 
rigid frame into such scenes as Paolo and Francesca, but 
neither by his admirers nor by his detractors credited with 
anything like the freedom of Shakespeare. Shakespeare will 
be still worse traduced, in being attributed with some 
patent system of philosophy of his own, esoteric guide to 
conduct, yoga-breathing or key to the scriptures. Thus are 
the planes of order and pattern confounded. 

It is also the prejudice or preference of any one who 
practises, though humbly, the art of verse, to be sceptical 
of all 'interpretations' of poetry, even his own interpreta 
tions; and to rely upon his sense of power and accomplish 
ment in language to guide him. And certainly people 
ordinarily incline to suppose that in order to enjoy a poem 
it is necessary to 'discover its meaning'; so that their minds 
toil to discover a meaning, a meaning which they can ex 
pound to any one who will listen, in order to prove that 
they enjoy it. But for one thing the possibilities of meaning 
of 'meaning' in poetry are so extensive, that one is quite 
aware that one's knowledge of the meaning even of what 
oneself has written is extremely limited, and that its mean 
ing to others, at least so far as there is some consensus of 
interpretation among persons apparently qualified to inter 
pret, is quite as much a part of it as what it means to oneself. 
But when the meaning assigned is too clearly formulated, 
then one reader who has grasped a meaning of a poem may 
happen to appreciate it less exactly, enjoy it less intensely, 
than another person who has the discretion not to inquire too 
insistently. So, finally, the sceptical practitioner of verse tends 



INTRODUCTION 



to limit his criticism of poetry to the appreciation of vocabu 
lary and syntax, the analysis of line, metric and cadence; to 
stick as closely to the more trustworthy senses as possible. 

Or rather, tends to try to do this. For this exact and 
humble appreciation is only one ideal never quite arrived 
at or even so far as approximated consistently maintained. 
The restless demon in us drives us also to 'interpret 1 whether 
we will or not; and the question of the meaning of 'inter 
pretation' is a very pretty problem for Mr. I. A. Richards, 
with which neither Mr. Wilson Knight nor myself in this 
context can afford to be too narrowly concerned. But our 
impulse to interpret a work of art (by 'work of art* I mean 
here rather the work of one artist as a whole) is exactly as 
imperative and fundamental as our impulse to interpret the 
universe by metaphysics. Though we are never satisfied by 
any metaphysic, yet those who insist dogmatically upon the 
impossibility of knowledge of the universe, or those who 
essay to prove to us that the term 'universe' is meaningless, 
meet, I think, with a singularly unanimous rejection by 
those who are curious about the universe; and their counsels 
fall more flat than the flimsiest constructions of meta 
physics. And Bradley's apothegm that 'metaphysics is the 
finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; 
but to find these reasons is no less an instinct', applies as 
precisely to the interpretation of poetry. 

To interpret, then, or to seek to pounce upon the secret, 
to elucidate the pattern and pluck out the mystery, of a 
poet's work, is *no less an instinct*. Nor is the effort 
altogether vain; for as the study of philosophy, and indeed 
the surrendering ourselves, with adequate knowledge of other 
systems, to some system of our own or of someone else, is 
as needful part of a man's life as falling in love or making 
any contract, so is it necessary to surrender ourselves to 
some interpretation of the poetry we like. (In my own 
experience, a writer needs less to 'interpret* the work of 
some minor poet who has influenced him, and whom he 
has assimilated, than the work of those poets who are too 
big for anyone wholly to assimilate. But I dare say that if 
one was as great a poet as Shakespeare, and was also his 
'spiritual heir*, one would feel no need to interpret him; 



^ INTRODUCTION 

interpretation is necessary perhaps only in so far as one is 
passive, not creative, oneself.) 

And I do not mean that nothing solid and enduring can 
be arrived at in interpretation: but to me it seems that 
there must be, as a matter of fact, in every effort of inter 
pretation, some part which can be accepted and necessarily 
also some part which other readers can reject. I believe that 
there is a good deal in the interpretation of Shakespeare by 
Mr. Wilson Knight which can stand indefinitely for other 
people; and it would be a waste of time for me to pronounce 
judicially on the two elements in Mr. Knight's work. For 
that would be merely a re-interpretation of my own; and the 
reader will have to perform that operation for himself anyway. 
But I confess that reading his essays seems to me to have 
enlarged my understanding of the Shakespeare pattern; 
which, after all, is quite the main thing. It happened, fortu 
nately for myself, that when I read some of his papers I 
was mulling over some of the later plays, particularly 
Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale\ and reading the 
later plays for the first time in my life as a separate group, 
I was impressed by what seemed to me important and very 
serious recurrences of mood and theme. The old theory, 
current in my youth, of a Shakespeare altering and deterio 
rating his form and style to suit a new romantic taste, would 
not do; or if Shakespeare did this, then it became a remark 
able coincidence that he should be able in middle life to turn 
about and give the public what it wanted if these strange 
plays could conceivably be what any public would want 
and at the same time remain steadfast in such integrity of 
exploration. And the mastery of language, I was sure, was 
quite undiminished. 

To take Shakespeare's work as a whole, no longer to 
single out several plays as the greatest, and mark the others 
only as apprenticeship or decline is I think an important 
and positive step in modern Shakespeare interpretation. 
More particularly, I think that Mr. Wilson Knight has 
shown insight in pursuing his search for the pattern below 
the level of 'plot* and 'character'. There are plots and there 
are characters: the question of 'sources' has its rights, and 
we must, if we go into the matter at all, inform ourselves 



INTRODUCTION 



of the exact proportion of invention, borrowing, and adap 
tation in the plot; and so far as possible we must separate 
the lines written by Shakespeare from those written by 
collaborators, or taken over from an earlier hand or inter 
polated by a later. This sort of work must be done to pre 
pare for the search for the real pattern. But I think that 
Mr. Knight, among other things, has insisted upon the right 
way to interpret poetic drama. The writer of poetic drama 
is not merely a man skilled in two arts and skilful to weave 
them in together; he is not a writer who can decorate a 
play with poetic language and metre. His task is different 
from that of the 'dramatist* or that of the 'poet', for his 
pattern is more complex and more dimensional; and with 
the subtraction which I have noted above, that Dante's 
pattern is the richer by a serious philosophy, and Shake 
speare's the poorer by a rag-bag philosophy, I should say 
that Shakespeare's pattern was more complex, and his 
problem more difficult, than Dante's. The genuine poetic 
drama must, at its best, observe all the regulations of the 
plain drama, but will weave them organically (to mix a 
metaphor and to borrow for the occasion a modern word) 
into a much richer design. But our first duty as either 
critics or 'interpreters', surely, must be to try to grasp the 
whole design, and read character and flat in the understand 
ing of this subterrene or submarine music. Here I say Mr. 
Knight has pursued the right line for his own plane of 
investigation, not hypostasizing 'character* and 'plot'. For 
Shakespeare is one of the rarest of dramatic poets, in that 
each of his characters is most nearly adequate both to the 
requirements of the real world and to those of the poet's 
world. If we can apprehend this balance in Pericles^ we can 
come to apprehend it even in Goneril and Regan. And here 
Mr. Knight seems to me to be very helpful in expressing the 
results or the passive, and more critical, poetic understanding. 
My fear is, that both what I say in this prefatory way, 
and what Mr. Wilson Knight has to say, may be mis 
understood. It is a little irony that when a poet, like Dante, 
sets out with a definite philosophy and a sincere determina 
tion to guide conduct, his philosophical and ethical pattern 
is discounted, and our interpreters insist upon the pure 



INTRODUCTION 



poetry which is to be disassociated from this reprehensible 
effort to do us good. And that when a poet like Shakespeare, 
who has no 'philosophy* and apparently no design upon the 
amelioration of our behaviour, sets forth his experience and 
reading of life, he is forthwith saddled with a 'philosophy' 
of his own and some esoteric hints towards conduct. So we 
kick against those who wish to guide us, and insist on being 
guided by those who only aim to show us a vision, a dream 
if you like, which is beyond good and evil in the common 
sense. It is all a question of our willingness to pursue any 
path to the end. For the very Catholic philosophy of Dante, 
with its stern judgement of morals, leads us to the same 
point beyond good and evil as the pattern of Shakespeare. 
Morality, we need to be told again and again, is not itself 
to be judged by moral standards: its laws are as 'natural* 
as any discovered by Einstein or Planck: which is ex 
pounded by, among others, Piccarda. Well : we must settle 
these problems for ourselves, provisionally, as well as we can. 

Without pursuing that curious and obscure problem of 
the meaning of interpretation farther, it occurs to me as 
possible that there may be an essential part of error in all 
interpretation, without which it would not be interpretation 
at all : but this line of thought may be persevered in by 
students of Appearance and Rjsaltty. Another point, more 
immediately relevant, is that in a work of art, as truly as 
anywhere, reality only exists in and through appearances. 
I do not think that Mr. Wilson Knight himself, or Mr. 
Colin Still in his interesting book on The Tempest called 
Shakespeare's Mystery Play, has fallen into the error of 
presenting the work of Shakespeare as a series of mystical 
treatises in cryptogram, to be filed away once the cipher is 
read; poetry is poetry, and the surface is as marvellous as 
the core, A mystical treatise is at best a poor substitute for 
the original experience of its author; and a poem, or the 
life's work of a poet, is a very different document from 
that. The work of Shakespeare is like life itself something 
to be lived through. If we lived it completely we should 
need no interpretation; but on our plane of appearances our 
interpretations themselves are a part of our living. 

T. S. ELIOT 

1930 



The Wheel of Fire 



I 

ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 
SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 

THE following essays present an interpretation of 
Shakespeare's work which may tend at first to confuse 
and perhaps even repel the reader: therefore I here try to 
clarify the points at issue. In this essay I outline what I 
believe to be the main hindrances to a proper understanding 
of Shakespeare; I also suggest the path which I think a 
sound interpretation should pursue. My remarks are, how 
ever, to be read as a counsel of perfection. Yet, though I can 
not claim to follow them throughout in practice, this prelimin 
ary discussion, in showing what I have been at pains to do 
and to avoid, will serve to indicate the direction of my attempt. 
At the start, I would draw a distinction between the 
terms 'criticism' and 'interpretation'. It will be as well to 
define, purely for my immediate purpose, my personal uses 
of the words. 'Criticism* to me suggests a certain process 
of deliberately objectifying the work under consideration; 
the comparison of it with other similar works in order 
especially to show in what respects it surpasses, or falls 
short of, those works; the dividing its 'good' from its 'bad'; 
and, finally, a formal judgement as to its lasting validity. 
'Interpretation', on the contrary, tends to merge into the 
work it analyses; it attempts, as far as possible, to understand 
its subject in the light of its own nature, employing external 
reference, if at all, only as a preliminary to understanding; 
it avoids discussion of merits, and, since its existence depends 
entirely on its original acceptance of the validity of the 
poetic unit which it claims, in some measure, to translate 
into discursive reasoning, it can recognize no division of 
'good' from 'bad'. Thus criticism is active and looks ahead, 
often treating past work as material on which to base future 
standards and canons of art; interpretation is passive, and 
looks back, regarding only the imperative challenge of a 
poetic vision. Criticism is a judgement of vision; interpre 
tation a reconstruction of vision. In practice, it is probable 



ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 

But 



see 



Ulysses' long speech on order, are cases in point, 
because we, in our own lives and those of our friends, 
events most strongly as a time-sequence thereby blurring 
our vision of other significances we next, quite arbitrarily 
and unjustly, abstract from the Shakespearian drama that 
element which the intellect most easily assimilates; and, 
finding it not to correspond with our own life as we see it, 
begin to observe 'faults'. This, however, is apparent only 
after we try to rationalize our impressions; what I have 
called the 'spatial' approach is implicit in our imaginative 
pleasure to a greater or a less degree always. It is, probably, 
the ability to see larger and still larger areas of a great work 
spatially with a continual widening of vision that causes us 
to appreciate it more deeply, to own it with our minds more 
surely, on every reading; whereas at first, knowing it only 
as a story, much of it may have seemed sterile, and much of 
it irrelevant, A vivid analogy to this Shakespearian quality 
is provided by a fine modern play, Journeys End. Every 
thing in the play gains tremendous significance from war. 
The story, which is slight, moves across a stationary back 
ground: if we forget that background for one instant parts 
of the dialogue fall limp ; remember it, and the most ordinary 
remark is tense, poignant often of shattering power. To 
study Measure for Measure or Macbeth without reference to 
their especial 'atmospheres* is rather like forgetting the war 
as we read or witness Journey's End\ or the cherry orchard 
in Tchehov's famous play. There is, however, a difference. 
In Journeys End the two elements, the dynamic and static, 
action and background, are each firmly actualized and sepa 
rated except in so far as Stanhope, rather like Hamlet, bridges 
the two. In The Cherry Orchard there is the same division. 
But with Shakespeare a purely spiritual atmosphere inter 
penetrates the action, there is a fusing rather than a contrast; 
and where a direct personal symbol growing out of the 
dominating atmosphere is actualized, it may be a super 
natural being, as the Ghost, symbol of the death-theme in 
Hamlet, or the Weird Sisters, symbols of the evil in Macbeth. 
Since in Shakespeare there is this close fusion of the 
temporal, that is, the plot-chain of event following event, 
with the spatial, that is, the omnipresent and mysterious 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 

reality brooding motionless over and within the play's 
movement, it is evident that my two principles thus firmly 
divided in analysis are no more than provisional abstractions 
from the poetic unity. But since to make the first abstraction 
with especial crudity, that is, to analyse the sequence of 
events, the 'causes' linking dramatic motive to action and 
action to result in time, is a blunder instinctive to the human 
intellect, I make no apology for restoring balance by 
insistence on the other. My emphasis is justified, in that it 
will be seen to clarify many difficulties. It throws neglected 
beauties into strong relief, and often resolves the whole 
play with a sudden revelation. For example, the ardour of 
Troilus in battle against the Greeks at the close of Troilus and 
Cressida, Mariana's lovely prayer for Angelo's life, the birth 
of love in Edmund at the close of King Lear, and the stately 
theme of Alcibiades 1 revenge in Timon of Athens all these 
cannot be properly understood without a clear knowledge of 
the general themes which vitalize the action of those plays. 
These dual elements seem perfectly harmonized in Troilus 
and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and King Lear. 
In Hamlet the spatial element is mainly confined to the 
theme of Hamlet and the Ghost, both sharply contrasted 
with their environment: thus the play offers a less unified 
statement as a whole, and interpretation is rendered difficult 
and not wholly satisfactory. With Othello, too, there is 
difficulty. Unless the play is to be considered as purely a 
sequence of events, if we are to find a spatial reality, we 
must view the qualities of the three chief persons together 
and in their essential relation to each other expect to find 
the core of the metaphysical significance: for the primary 
fact of the play is not, as in Macbeth and King Lear, a 
blending, but rather a differentiating, a demarcation, and 
separation, of essence from essence. In Timon of Athens both 
elements appear, but the temporal predominates in that 
the imaginative atmosphere itself changes with the play's 
progress : which fact here seems to reflect the peculiar clarity 
and conscious mastery of the poet's mind. With the poet, 
as with the reader, the time-sequence will be uppermost 
in consciousness, the pervading atmosphere or static back 
ground tending to be unconsciously apprehended or created, 



ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 



a half-realized significance, a vague all-inclusive deity of 
the dramatic universe. In respect of this atmospheric 
suggestion we find a sense of mystery in King Lear which 
cannot be found in Othello ; and, in so far as the Shakespearian 
play lacks mystery, it seems, as a rule, to lack profundity. 
But in Timon of Athens the mystery of King Lear is, as it 
were, mastered, and yet re-expressed with the clarity of 
Othello. Here the poet explicates the atmospheric quality 
of former plays in a philosophic tragedy whose dominant 
temporal quality thus mirrors the clarity, in no sense the 
sterility, of the poet's vision. The spatial, that is, the 
spiritual, quality uses the temporal, that is, the story, 
lending it dominance in order to express itself the more 
clearly : Timon of Athens is essentially an allegory or parable. 
My suggestion as to the poet's 'consciousness' must, how 
ever, be considered as either pure hazard or useful metaphor, 
illuminating the play's nature and perhaps hitting the truth 
of Shakespeare's mind in composition. Certainly Hazlitt 
thought that in Timon of Athens the poet was of all his plays 
the most 'in earnest'. But elsewhere I am not concerned 
with the poet's 'consciousness', or 'intentions'. Nor need 
the question arise; but, since a strong feeling exists that no 
subtlety or profundity can be born from a mind itself 
partly unconscious of such things, and since Shakespeare's 
life appears not to have been mainly concerned with trans 
cendental realities except in that he was born, loved, was 
ambitious, and died it will be as well to refer briefly to 
the matter of 'intentions'. This I shall do next, and will 
afterwards deal with two other critical concepts which, with 
'intentions', have helped to work chaos with our under 
standing of poetry. 

There- is a maxim that a work of art should be criticized 
according to the artist's 'intentions' : than- which no maxim 
could be more false. The intentions of the artist are but 
clouded forms which, if he attempt to crystallize them in 
consciousness, may prefigure a quite different reality from 
that which eventually emerges in his work, 

not answering the aim 
And that unbodied figure of the thought 
That gave't surmised shape. 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 7 

In those soliloquies where Brutus and Macbeth try to 
clarify their own motives into clean-cut concepts, we may 
see good examples of the irrelevance born by 'intentions' to 
the instinctive power which is bearing the man towards 
his fate: it is the same with the poet. Milton's puritanical 
'intentions' bear little relevance to his Satan. 'Intentions' 
belong to the plane of intellect and memory: the swifter 
consciousness that awakens in poetic composition touches 
subtleties and heights and depths unknowable by intellect 
and intractable to memory. That consciousness we can enjoy 
at will when we submit ourselves with utmost passivity to 
the poet's work; but when* the intellectual mode returns it 
often brings with it a troop of concepts irrelevant to the 
nature of the work it thinks to analyse, and, with its army of 
'intentions', 'causes', 'sources', and 'characters', and its 
essentially ethical outlook, works havoc with our minds, 
since it is trying to impose on the vivid reality of art a logic 
totally alien to its nature. In interpretation we must remem 
ber not the facts but the quality of the original poetic 
experience; and, in translating this into whatever concepts 
appear suitable, we find that the facts too fall into place 
automatically when once the qualitative focus is correct. 
Reference to the artist's 'intentions* is usually a sign that the 
commentator in so far as he is a commentator rather than 
a biographer has lost touch with the essentials of the 
poetic work. He is thinking in terms of the time-sequence 
and causality, instead of allowing his mind to be purely 
receptive. It will be clear, then, that the following essays 
say nothing new as to Shakespeare's 'intentions'; attempt to 
shed no light directly on Shakespeare the man; but claim 
rather to illuminate our own poetic experiences enjoyed 
whilst reading, or watching, the plays. In this sense, they 
are concerned only with realities, since they claim to interpret 
what is generally admitted to exist: the supreme quality of 
Shakespeare's work. 

Next as to 'sources'. This concept is closely involved 
with that of 'intentions'. Both try to explain art hi terms of 
causality, the most natural implement of intellect. Both fail 
empirically to explain any essential whatsoever. There is, 
clearly, a relation between Shakespeare's plays and the work 



8 ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 

of Plutarch, Holinshed, Vergil, Ovid, and the Bible; but not 
one of these, nor any number of them, can be considered 
a cause of Shakespeare's poetry and therefore the word 
'source', that is, the origin whence the poetic reality flows, is 
a false metaphor. In Shakespeare's best known passage of 
aesthetic philosophy we hear that the poet's eye glances 
'from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven', and that the 
poet's pen turns to 'shapes' the 'forms of things unknown\ 
It 'gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name'. 
That is, the source of poetry is rooted in the otherness of 
mental or spiritual realities; these, however, are a 'nothing' 
until mated with earthly shapes. Creation is thus born of a 
union between 'earth' and 'heaven', the material and the 
spiritual. Without 'shapes' the poet is speechless; he needs 
words, puppets of the drama, tales. But the unknown 'forms' 
come first. In another profound but less known passage 
(Richard //, v. v. 6) we hear that in creation the brain is 
'the female to the soul'. The spiritual then is the masculine, 
the material the feminine, agent in creation. The 'source' of 
Antony and Cleopatra, if we must indeed have a 'source' at 
all, is the transcendent erotic imagination of the poet which 
finds its worthy bride in an old world romance. It seems, 
indeed, that the great poet must, if he is to forgo nothing 
of concreteness and humanity, lose himself in contemplation 
of an actual tale or an actual event in order to find himself 
in supreme vision; otherwise he will tend to philosophy, to 
the divine element unmated to the earthly. Therefore 
'sources', as usually understood, have their use for the poet: 
they have little value for the interpreter. The tale of Cleo 
patra married to a Hardy's imagination would have given 
birth to a novel very different from Shakespeare's play: the 
final poetic result is always a mystery. That result, and not 
vague hazards as to its 'source*, must be the primary object of 
our attention. It should further be observed that, although 
the purely 'temporal' element of Shakespearian drama may 
sometimes bear a close relation to a tale probably known by 
Shakespeare, what I have called the 'spatial' reality is ever 
the unique child of his mind; therefore interpretation, 
concerned, as in the following essays, so largely with that 
reality, is clearly working outside and beyond the story 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 9 

alone. Now, whereas the spatial quality of these greater 
plays is different in each, they nearly all turn on the same 
plot. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the poet has 
chosen a series of tales to whose life-rhythm he is spon 
taneously attracted, and has developed them in each instance 
according to his vision. 

And finally, as to 'character'. In the following essays the 
term is refused, since it is so constantly entwined with a 
false and unduly ethical criticism. So often we hear that 'in 
Timon of Athens it was Shakespeare's intention to show how 
a generous but weak character may come to ruin through 
an unwise use of his wealth'; that 'Shakespeare wished in 
Macbeth to show how crime inevitably brings retribution*; 
that, 'in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare has given us a 
lesson concerning the dangers of an uncontrolled passion'. 
These are purely imaginary examples, coloured for my 
purpose, to indicate the type of ethical criticism to which I 
refer. It continually brings in the intention-concept, which 
our moral-philosophy, rightly or wrongly, involves. Hence, 
too, the constant and fruitless search for 'motives' sufficient 
to account for Macbeth *s and lago's actions: since the 
moral critic feels he cannot blame a 'character* until he 
understands his 'intentions', and without the opportunity 
of praising and blaming he is dumb. It is not, indeed, 
possible to avoid ethical considerations; nor is it advisable. 
Where one person within the drama is immediately apparent 
as morally good and another as bad, we will note the dif 
ference: but we should follow our dramatic intuitions. A 
person in the drama may act in such a way that we are in no 
sense antagonized but are aware of beauty and supreme 
interest only; yet the analogy to that same action may well 
be intolerable to us in actual life. When such a divergence 
occurs the commentator must be true to his artistic, not 
his normal, ethic. Large quantities of Shakespeare criticism 
have wrecked themselves on the teeth of this dualism. In 
so far as moral values enter into our appreciation of the poetic 
work, they will tend to be instinctive to us: Shakespeare 
here, as in his other symbols, speaks our own language. I 
mean, it is as natural to us to like Cordelia better than 
Goneril with a liking which may be said to depend partly 



IO ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 

on moral values as it is for us to recognize the power of 
Shakespeare's tempest-symbol as suggesting human tragedy, 
or his use of jewel-metaphors to embody the costly riches 
of love. In ages hence, when perhaps tempests are controlled 
by science and communism has replaced wealth, then the 
point of Shakespeare's symbolism may need explanation; 
and then it may, from a new ethical view-point, be necessary 
to analyse at length the moral values implicit in the Cordelia 
and Edmund conceptions. But in these matters Shakespeare 
speaks almost the same language as we, and ethical terms, 
though they must frequently occur in interpretation, must 
only be allowed in so far as they are used in absolute 
obedience to the dramatic and aesthetic significance: in 
which case they cease to be ethical in the usual sense. 

This false criticism is implied by the very use of the word 
'character*. It is impossible to use the term without any 
tinge of a morality which blurs vision. The term, which in 
ordinary speech often denotes the degree of moral control 
exercised by the individual over his instinctive passions, is 
altogether un suited to those persons of poetic drama whose 
life consists largely of passion unveiled. Macbeth and King 
Lear are created in a soul-dimension of primal feeling, of 
which in real life we may be only partly conscious or may 
be urged to control by a sense of right and wrong. In fact, 
it may well seem that the more we tend away from the 
passionate and curbless life of poetic drama, the stronger 
we shall be as 'characters'. And yet, in reading Macbeth or 
King Lear we are aware of strength, not weakness. We are 
not aware of failure: rather we 'let determined things to 
destiny hold unbewailed their way*. We must observe, then, 
this paradox : the strong protagonist of poetic drama would 
probably appear a weakling if he were a real man; and, 
indeed, the critic who notes primarily Macbeth's weakness 
is criticizing him as a man rather than a dramatic person. 
Ethics are essentially critical when applied to life; but if 
they hold any place at all in art, they will need to be modified 
into a new artistic ethic which obeys the peculiar nature of 
art as surely as a sound morality is based on the nature of 
man. From a true interpretation centred on the imaginative 
qualities of Shakespeare, certain facts will certainly emerge 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION II 

which bear relevance to human life, to human morals: but 
interpretation must come first. And interpretation must be 
metaphysical rather than ethical. We shall gain nothing by 
applying to the delicate symbols of the poet's imagination 
the rough machinery of an ethical philosophy created to 
control the turbulences of actual life. Thus when a critic 
adopts the ethical attitude, we shall generally find that he 
is unconsciously lifting the object of his attention from his 
setting and regarding him as actually alive. By noting 
'faults' in Timon's 'character' we are in effect saying that 
he would not be a success in real life: which is beside the 
point, since he, and Macbeth, and Lear, are evidently 
dramatic successes. Now, whereas* the moral attitude to life 
is positive and dynamic and tells us what we ought to do, 
that attitude applied to literature is invariably negative and 
destructive. It is continually thrusting on our attention 
a number of 'failures', 'mistakes', and 'follies' in connexion 
with those dramatic persons from whom we have consistently 
derived delight and a sense of exultation. Even when terms 
of negation, such as 'evil', necessarily appear as with 
Hamlet and Macbeth we should so employ them that the 
essence they express is felt to be something powerful, 
autonomous, and grand. Our reaction to great literature is 
a positive and dynamic experience. Crudely, sometimes 
ineffectually, interpretation will attempt to translate that 
experience in a spirit also positive and dynamic. 

To do this we should regard each play as a visionary 
whole, close-knit in personification, atmospheric suggestion, 
and direct poetic-symbolism: three modes of transmission, 
equal in their importance. Too often the first of these alone 
receives attention: whereas, in truth, we should not be 
content even with all three, however clearly we have them 
in our minds, unless we can work back through them to the 
original vision they express. Each incident, each turn of 
thought, each suggestive symbol throughout Macbeth or 
King Lear radiates inwards from the play's circumference to 
the burning central core without knowledge of which we 
shall miss their relevance and necessity : they relate primarily, 
not directly to each other, nor to the normal appearances of 
human life, but to this central reality alone. The persons of 



12 ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 

Shakespeare have been analysed carefully in point of psycho 
logical realism. But in giving detailed and prolix attention 
to any one element of the poet's expression, the commen 
tator, starting indeed from a point on the circumference, 
instead of working into the heart of the play, pursues a 
tangential course, riding, as it were, on his own life- 
experiences farther and farther from his proper goal. Such 
is the criticism that finds fault with the Duke's decisions 
at the close of Measure for Measure: if we are to understand 
the persons of Shakespeare we should consider always what 
they do rather than what they might have done. Each person, 
event, scene, is integral to the poetic statement : the removing, 
or blurring, of a single stone in the mosaic will clearly lessen 
our chance of visualizing the whole design. 

Too often the commentator discusses Shakespeare's work 
without the requisite emotional sympathy and agility of 
intellect. Then the process of false criticism sets in: whatever 
elements lend themselves most readily to analysis on the 
analogy of actual life, these he selects, roots out, distorting 
their natural growth; he then praises or blames according to 
their measure of correspondence with his own life-experiences, 
and, creating the plaster figures of 'character', searches 
everywhere for 'causes' on the analogy of human affairs, 
noting that lago has no sufficient reason for his villainy, 
executing some strange transference such as the statement 
that Lady Macbeth would have done this or that in Cordelia's 
position; observing that there appears to have been dull 
weather on the occasion of Duncan's murder. But what he 
will not do is recapture for analysis his own original 
experience, concerned, as it was, purely with a dramatic and 
artistic reality: with lago the person of motiveless and 
instinctive villainy, with Cordelia known only with reference 
to the Lear universe, with the vivid extravagant symbolism 
of abnormal phenomena in beast and element and the sun's 
eclipse which accompanies the unnatural act of murder. 
These, the true, the poetic, realities, the commentator too 
often passes over. He does not look straight at the work he 
would interpret, is not true to his own imaginative reaction. 
My complaint is, not that such a commentator cannot 
appreciate the imaginative nature of Shakespeare that 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 13 

would be absurd and unjustifiable but that he falsifies his 
own experience when he begins to criticize. Part of the play 
and that the less important element of story he tears 
out ruthlessly for detailed analysis on the analogy of human 
life: with a word or two about *the magic of poetry* or 'the 
breath of genius' he dismisses the rest. Hence the rich gems 
of Shakespeare's poetic symbolism have been left untouched 
and unwanted, whilst Hamlet was being treated in Harley 
Street, Hence arises the criticism discovering faults in 
Shakespeare. But when a right interpretation is offered it 
will generally be seen that both the fault and the criticism 
which discovered it are without meaning. The older critics 
drove psychological analysis to unnecessary lengths: the 
new school of 'realistic* criticism, in finding faults and 
explaining them with regard to Shakespeare's purely practical 
and financial 'intentions', is thus in reality following the 
wrong vision of its predecessors. Both together trace the 
process of my imaginary critic, who, thinking to have found 
an extreme degree of realism in one place, ends by com 
plaining that he finds too little in another. Neither touch the 
heart of the Shakespearian play. 

Nor will a sound knowledge of the stage and the especial 
theatrical technique of Shakespeare's work render up its 
imaginative secret. True, the plays were written as plays, 
and meant to be acted. But that tells us nothing relevant to 
our purpose. It explains why certain things cannot be found 
in Shakespeare: it does not explain why the finest things, 
the fascination of Hamlet^ the rich music of Othello, the 
gripping evil of Macbeth, the pathos of King Lear, and the 
gigantic architecture of Timon of Athens came to birth. 
Shakespeare wrote in terms of drama, as he wrote in 
English. In the grammar of dramatic structure he expresses 
his vision: without that, or some other, structure he could 
not have expressed himself. But the dramatic nature of a 
play's origin cannot be adduced to disprove a quality 
implicit in the work itself. True, when there are any faults 
to be explained, this particular pursuit and aim of Shake 
speare's poetry may well be noted to account for their 
presence. Interpretation, however, tends to resolve all but 
minor difBculties in connexion with the greater plays: 



14 ON THE PRINCIPLES OF 

therefore it is not necessary in the following essays to 
remember, or comment on, the dramatic structure of their 
expression, though from another point of view such com 
ment and analysis may well be interesting. It illuminates 
one facet of their surface: but a true philosophic and 
imaginative interpretation will aim at cutting below the 
surface to reveal that burning core of mental or spiritual 
reality from which each play derives its nature and meaning. 

That soul-life of the Shakespearian play is, indeed, a thing 
of divine worth. Its perennial fire is as mysterious, as near 
and yet as far, as that of the sun, and, like the sun, it burns 
on while generations pass. If interpretation attempts^ to 
split the original beam into different colours for inspection 
and analysis it does not claim, any more than will the 
scientist, that its spectroscope reveals the whole reality of its 
attention. It discovers something: exactly what it discovers, 
and whether that discovery be of ultimate value, cannot easily 
be demonstrated. But, though we know the sun better in 
the spring fields than in the laboratory, yet we might remem 
ber that the spectroscope discovered Helium first in the 
solar ray, which chemical was after sought and found on 
earth. So, too, the interpretation of poetic vision may have 
its use. And if it seems sometimes to bear little relevance to 
its original, if its mechanical joints creak and its philosophy 
lumber clumsily in attempt to follow the swift arrow-flight 
of poetry, it is, at least, no less rational a pursuit than that of 
the mathematician who writes a rhythmic curve in the stiff 
symbols of an algebraic equation. 

I shall now shortly formulate what I take to be the main 
principles of right Shakespearian interpretation: 

(i) Before noticing the presence of faults we should first 
iregard each play as a visionary unit bound to obey none but 
its own self-imposed laws. To do this we should attempt to 
preserve absolute truth to our own imaginative reaction, 
whithersoever it may lead us in the way of paradox and 
unreason. We should at all costs avoid selecting what is easy 
to understand and forgetting the superlogical. 

(ii) We should thus be prepared to recognize what I 
have called the 'temporal' and the 'spatial* elements: ^that 
is, to relate any given incident or speech either to the time- 



SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 15 

sequence of story or the peculiar atmosphere, intellectual or 
imaginative, which binds the play. Being aware of this new 
element we should not look for perfect verisimilitude to life, 
but rather see each play as an expanded metaphor, by means 
of which the original vision has been projected into forms 
roughly correspondent with actuality, conforming thereto 
with greater or less exactitude according to the demands of 
its own nature. It will then usually appear that many 
difficult actions and events become coherent and, within 
the scope of their universe, natural. 

(iii) We should analyse the use and meaning of direct 
poetic symbolism that is, events whose significance can 
hardly be related to the normal processes of actual life. Also 
the minor symbolic imagery of Shakespeare, which is 
extremely consistent, should receive careful attention. Where 
certain images continually recur in the same associative 
connexion, we can, if we have reason to believe that this 
associative force is strong enough, be ready to see the 
presence of the associative value when the images occur alone. 
Nor should we neglect the symbolic value of aural effects such 
as the discharge of cannon in Hamlet and Othello or the 
sound of trumpets in Measure for Measure and King Lear, 

(iv) The plays from Julius Caesar (about 1599) to The 
Tempest (about 1611) when properly understood fall into a 
significant sequence. This I have called 'the Shakespeare 
Progress'. Therefore in detailed analysis of any one play it 
may sometimes be helpful to have regard to its place in the 
sequence, provided always that thought of this sequence be 
used to illuminate, and in no sense be allowed to distort, the 
view of the play under analysis. Particular notice should be 
given to what I have called the 'hate-theme*, which is 
turbulent throughout most of these plays: an especial mode 
of cynicism toward love, disgust at the physical body, and 
dismay at the thought of death; a revulsion from human 
life caused by a clear sight of its limitations more especially 
limitations imposed by time. This progress I have outlined 
in Myth and Miracle^ being concerned there especially with 
the Final Plays. The following essays are ordered according 
to the probable place in the Shakespeare Progress of the plays 
concerned. The order is that given by the late Professor 



l6 THE PRINCIPLES OF SHAKESPEARE INTERPRETATION 

Henry Norman Hudson in The Neiv Hudson Shakespeare. 
Though I here compare one theme in Julius Caesar with 
Macbeth^ I postpone a comprehensive analysis of the play, 
since its peculiar quality relates it more directly to the later 
tragedies than to those noticed in this treatment. 

These arguments I have pursued at some length, since my 
interpretation reaches certain conclusions which may seem 
somewhat revolutionary. Especially will this be apparent in 
my reading of the Final Plays as mystical representations of 
a mystic vision. A first sketch of this reading I have already 
published in Myth and Miracle. Since the publication of my 
essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still's 
remarkable book Shakespeare's Mystery Play: A Study of The 
Tempest (Cecil Palmer, 1921). Mr. Still's interpretation of 
The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were 
reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with 
other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the 
ages; mine are reached solely through seeing The Tempest as 
the conclusion to the Shakespeare Progress. TheTempestis thus 
exactly located as a work of mystic insight with reference to the 
cross-axes of universal and Shakespearian vision* It would 
seem, therefore, thatmymethodof interpretation as outlined in 
this essay has already met with some degree of empirical proof. 

In conclusion, I would emphasize that I here lay down 
certain principles and make certain objections for my 
immediate purpose only. I would not be thought to level 
complaint against the value of 'criticism* in general. My 
private and personal distinction between 'criticism* and 
'interpretation' aims at no universal validity. It can hardly 
be absolute. No doubt I have narrowed the term 'criticism' 
unjustly. Much of the critical work of to-day is, according 
to my distinction, work of a high interpretative order. Nor 
do I suggest that true 'criticism' in the narrow sense I apply 
to it is of any lesser order than true interpretation : it may 
well be a higher pursuit, since it is, in a sense, the more 
creative and endures a greater burden of responsibility. The 
relative value of the two modes must vary in exact proportion 
to the greatness of the literature they analyse: that is why 
I believe the most profitable approach to Shakespeare to be 
interpretation rather than criticism. 



II 

THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 
AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 

I 

IN this first section I shall indicate the nature of Hamlet's 
mental suffering. It will then be clear that many of the 
scenes and incidents which have proved difficult in the past 
may be considered as expressions of that unique mental or 
spiritual experience of the hero which is at the heart of 
the play. In thus isolating this element for analysis I shall 
attempt to simplify at least one theme and that the most 
important one in a play baffling and difficult in its 
totality. My purpose will therefore be first limited strictly 
to a discussion, not of the play as a whole, nor even of 
Hamlet's mind as a whole, but of this central reality of 
pain, which, though it be necessarily related, either as 
effect or cause, to the events of the plot and to the other 
persons, is itself ultimate, and should be the primary object 
of our search. 

T' Our attention is early drawn to the figure of Hamlet. 
Alone in the gay glitter of the court, silhouetted against 
brilliance, robustness, health, and happiness, is the pale, 
black-robed Hamlet, mourning. When first we meet him, 
his words point the essential inwardness of his suffering: 

But I have that within which passeth show; 

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. "^ (i. ii. 85) 

When he is alone he reveals his misery more clearly: 

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, 

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew ! 

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd 

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter ! O God ! O God ! 

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable 

Seem to me all the uses of this world ! 

Fie on't ! ah fie I 'tis an unweeded garden, 

That grows to seed ; things rank and gross in nature 

Possess it merely. (i. ii. 129) 



l8 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH : 

The mood expressed by these lines is patent. To Hamlet 
the light has been extinguished from the things of earth. 
He has lost all sense or purpose. We already know one 
reason for Hamlet's state: his father's death. Claudius 
and his mother have already urged him to 

throw to earth 
This unprevailing woe . . (i. ii. 106) 

Now, during Hamlet's soliloquy, we see another reason: 
disgust at his mother's second marriage : 

. . . within a month : 
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears 
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, 
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post 
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets ! (i . ii. 153) 

These two concrete embodiments of Hamlet's misery are 
closely related. He suffers from misery at his father's 
death and agony at his mother's quick forgetful ness : such 
callousness is infidelity, and so impurity, and, since Claudius 
is the brother of the King, incest. It is reasonable to 
suppose that Hamlet's state of mind, if not wholly caused 
by these events, is at least definitely related to them. Of 
his two loved parents, one has been taken for ever by 
death, the other dishonoured for ever by her act of 
marriage. To Hamlet the world is now an 'unweeded 
garden'. 

Hamlet hears of his father's Ghost, sees it, and speaks 
to it. His original pain is intensified by knowledge of the 
unrestful spirit, by the terrible secrets of death hinted by 
the Ghost's words: 

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word 

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood . . . 

(x. v. 1 5) 

This is added to Hamlet's sense of loss : this knowledge of 
the father he loved suffering in death: 

Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, 

And for the day confin'd to fast in fires ... (i. v. 10) 

Nor is this all. He next learns that his father's murderer 
now wears the crown, is married to his faithless mother. 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 19 

Both elements in his original pain are thus horribly in 
tensified. His hope of recovery to the normal state of 
healthy mental life depended largely on his ability to forget 
his father, to forgive his mother. Claudius advised him 
well. Now his mother's honour is more foully smirched 
than ever; and the living cause and symbol of his father's 
death is firmly placed on Denmark's throne. Forget- 
fulness is impossible, forgetfulness that might have brought 
peace.'^The irony of the Ghost's parting word is terrible: 
Adieu, adieu ! Hamlet, remember me. (i. v. 91) 

If the spirit had been kind, it would have prayed that 
Hamlet might forget. This is the Ghost's last injunction, 
the one most indelibly printed in Hamlet's mind : 

Remember thee ! 

Ay, them poor ghost, while memory hold a seat 
In this distracted globe. Remember thee ! 
Yea, from the table of my memory 
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records ... (i. v. 95) 

Confronted by his irrevocable fate Hamlet repeats the 
words: 

Now to my word, 
It is 'Adieu, Adieu ! remember me.' 
I have sworn *t. 7 (i. v, 1 10) 

And he keeps his oath throughout the play. 

When Horatio and Marcellus join him he relieves the 
unnatural tension of his mind by joking and laughter. As 
in King Lear^ extreme mental agony tends towards 
expression in the region of the essentially comic. He makes 
his friends swear secrecy, thereby ensuring his future 
loneliness in the knowledge of the King's crime. He suggests 
that he may 'put an antic disposition on* (i. v. 172) to 
deceive the court. He cries out against the cruel fate that 
has laid on him, whose own soul is in chaos, the command 
of righting the evil in the state : 

O cursed spite, 
That ever I was born to set it right! (i. v. 188) 

Hamlet, when we first meet him, has lost all sense of life's 
significance. To a man bereft of the sense of purpose 
there is no possibility of creative action, it has no meaning. 



2O THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

No act but suicide is rational. Yet to Hamlet comes ^ the 
command of a great act revenge: therein lies the unique 
quality of the play a sick soul is commanded to heal, to 
cleanse, to create harmony. But good cannot come of evil: 
it is seen that the sickness of his soul only further infects the 
state his disintegration spreads out, disintegrating. 

Hamlet's soul is sick to death and yet there was one 
thing left that might have saved him. In the deserts of his 
mind, void with the utter vacuity of the knowledge of death 
death of his father, death of his mother's faith was yet 
one flower, his love of Ophelia. 

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders 

Of his affection to me.^j (i. "i. 99) 

So speaks Ophelia to Polonius. Again : 

Ophelia. My lord, he hath importuned me with love 

In honourable fashion. 

Polonius. Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to. 
Ophelia. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, 

With almost all the holy vows of Heaven. (i. iii. 1 1 o) 

This was before Hamlet saw the Ghost: perhaps before his 
father's death. Now there is one supreme enemy to the 
demon of neurotic despair, its antithesis and bright^ anta 
gonist: romantic love. For this has assured power, it can 
recreate the sense of purpose, it inspires to heroism and 
action. And it is self-creative. The lonely flower can soon 
overspread the desert with a multiplicity of colour and delight. 
tThe love of Ophelia is thus Hamlet's last hope. This, too, 
is taken from him. Her repelling of his letters and refusing 
to see him, in obedience to Polonius* command, synchronizes 
unmercifully with the terrible burden of knowledge laid 
on Hamlet by the revelation of the GhostjThe result is 
given to us indirectly but with excruciating vividness : 

helia. My lord, as I was sewing in my closet, 

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced ; 

No hat upon his head ; his stockings foul'd, 

Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle ; 

Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other; 

And with a look so piteous in purport 

As if he had been loosed out of Hell 

To speak of horrors he comes before me/S (u. i. 77) 



~/ 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 21 

This is no mock-madness. To see it as such is to miss the 
power of the central theme of the play. Hamlet would not 
first try the practical joke of pretended madness on Ophelia 
whom he loved. That pallor was no cosmetic. Hamlet, 
indeed, was in truth loosed out of Hell to speak of horrors' : 
on top of the Ghost's revelation has come Ophelia's un 
reasonable repulsion of that his last contact with life, his 
love for her. Therefore 

He took me by the wrist and held me hard ; 

Then goes he to the length of all his arm ; 

And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow, 

He falls to such perusal of my face 

As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so; 

At last, a little shaking of mine arm, 

And thrice his head thus waving up and down, 

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound 

As it did seem to shatter all his bulk 

And end his being . . . (n. i. 87) 

\^From henceforth he must walk alone within the prison of 
mental death. There is surely no more pitiful thing in 
literature than this description. Polonius sees the truth. 

'This is the very ecstasy of love . . / he says. And he is right. 

If we remember that Hamlet loves Ophelia; that he has just 
seen his father's ghost; and that now Ophelia has refused 
to admit him we need search no further for an explanation 
of Hamlet's behaviour. The suggestion that in these cir 
cumstances, at this moment in his history, he has the 
presence of mind to pretend madness to Ophelia is, indeed, 
a perversion of commentary. 

It is, however, certain that Hamlet does simulate madness 
before the court, and the King and Queen are both rightly 
unwilling to relate this madness to Hamlet's love of Ophelia. 
Says the Queen, when she hears that Polonius thinks he has 
traced the true cause: 

I doubt it is no other but the main ; 

His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage. 

(n. ii. 56) 

The King later decides that love is not the cause of Hamlet's 
trouble : 

Love ! his affections do not that way tendj (HI. i. r 7 1 ) 



22 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH 

This is after Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia. Here the 
King is partly wrong, and again there is truth in Polonius* 
words : 

... but yet do I believe 
The origin and commencement of his grief 
Sprung from neglected love . . . (in. i. 185) 

JLt is not the whole truth. Hamlet's pain is a complex of 
"(Efferent themes of grief. But absolute loss of control is 
apparent only in his dealings with Ophelia. Three times after 
the Ghost scene he utterly loses mental control : first, in the 
incident narrated by Ophelia; second, in his meeting with 
her in in. i.; and third, in the Graveyard scene, with Laertes 
over Ophelia's body. On all other occasions his abnormal 
behaviour, though it certainly tends towards, and might 
even be called, madness in relation to his environment, is 
yet rather the abnormality of extreme melancholia and 
cynicisrrO 

Throughout the middle scenes of the play we become 
more closely acquainted with Hamlet's peculiar disease. He 
is bitterly cynical : 

... to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of 
ten thousand. (n. ii. 179) 

And 

Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whip 
ping? (n.ii. 561) 

To Hamlet the world is a 'goodly* prison 

in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark 
being one o' the worst. (n. ii. 2 5 5) 

His mind is drawn to images in themselves repellent, and 
he dwells on the thought of foulness as the basis of life : 

For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog ... (ii. ii. 183) 

Hamlet reads,, or says he is reading, a satirical book, which 
observes that 

. . . ^old iren have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes 
purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful 
kck of wit, together with most weak hams. (n. ii. 202) 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 2$ 

The body of an old man is shown as something stupid, 
unpleasant: and Hamlet means it. Now all this is integral to 
Hamlet's state of mind. He is well described in a passage by 
William James in another connexion : 

. . . you sec how the entire consciousness of the poor man is so choked 
with the feeling of evil that the sense of there being any good in the world 
is lost for him altogether. His attention excludes it, cannot admit it : the 
sun has left his heaven. 

(The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 149) 

Hamlet's soul is sick. The symptoms are, horror at the fact 
of death and an equal detestation of life, a sense of unclean- 
liness and evil in the things of nature; a disgust at the 
physical body of man; bitterness, cynicism, hate. It tends 
towards insanity. All these elements are insistent in Hamlet. 
He can describe the glories of heaven and earth but for 
him those glories are gone. And he knows not why. The 
disease is deeper than his loss of Ophelia, deeper than his 
mother's sexual impurity and his father's death. These are, 
like his mourning dress, the 'trappings and the suits of woe*. 
They are the outward symbols of it, the 'causes' of it: but the 
thing itself is ultimate, beyond causality. That is why the 
theme is here related to the supernatural, to the Ghost. He 
describes it thus: 

I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth, forgone all 
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that 
this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory ; this most 
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this 
majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to 
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. (11. ii. 313) -x. 

Xjft will be clear that Hamlet's outstanding peculiarity 
in the action of this play may be regarded as a symptom of 
this sickness in his soul. He does not avenge his father's 
death, not because he dare not, not because he hates the 
thought of bloodshed, but because his 'wit's diseased' (in. 
ii. 341); his will is snapped and useless, like a broken leg. 
Nothing is worth while. After the player has worked himself 
into a tragic passion in the recitation of 'Aeneas' Tale to 
Dido', Hamlet looks inward and curses and hates himself 
for his lack of passion, and then again he hates himself the 



24 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

more for his futile self-hatred. He cannot understand 
himself: 



... it cannot be 



... it cannot be 

But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall 
To make oppression bitter^ 



(n. ii. 612) 



Aware of his own disease, he wonders if the spirit he has 
seen may be an evil spirit: 

The spirit that I have seen 
May be the Devil : and the Devil hath power 
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps 
Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 
As he is very potent with such spirits, 
Abuses me to damn me. (n. ii. 63 5) 

This fear strikes nearer the truth than the comments of 
many Shakespearian scholars. 

In Hamlet's interview with Ophelia we are again brought 
up against obvious symptoms of his spiritual atrophy. At 
first sight of her his love wells up-instinctively: 

Nymph, in thy orisons 
Be all my sins remember'd. " (in. i. 89) 

But he quickly recovers. The stupidity of love can have no 
place in his mind. Ophelia offers him back some old gifts. 
The voice of cynicisrn>#hswers : 

No., not I ; 
: I never gave you augkt^ (ni. i. 95) 

This is true. The Hamlet that gave those 'remembrances' 
is dead dead as his father. The ghost of him alone hovers 
pathetically over this dialogue. His past love seems now to 
Hamlet a childish and absurd thing: he cannot admit he 
was ever so puerile as to be cheated by it. Between the sick 
soul and the knowledge of love there are all the interstellar 
spaces that divide Hell from Heaven : for Hell and Heaven 
are but spatial embodiments of these two modes of the 
spirit. Therefore: 

Hamlet. Ha, ha ! are you honest? 

Ophelia. My lord? 

Hamlet. Are you fair? 

Ophilla. What means your lordship? 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 2f 

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no 

discourse to your beauty. 

Ophelia. Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty? 
Hamlet. Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty 

from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty 

into his likeness : this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it 

proof. I did love you once. 

Ophelia. Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so. 
Hamlet. You should not have believed me ; for virtue cannot so inoculate 

our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not. 

(in. i. 103) 

^Hamlet denies the existence of romantic values. Love, in his 
"mind, has become synonymous with sex, and sex with 
uncleanness. Therefore beauty is dangerous and unclean. 
Sick of the world, of man, of love, Hamlet denies the reality 
of his past romance: *I loved you not'. This statement alone 
fits coherently into his diseased mind, and so it is, to him, 
the truth. He cannot have loved, since love is unreal: if it 
were real, there would be meaning, passion, purpose in 
existence. These things are gone and love must go too. 

Next he curses himself, accuses himself of all the crimes 
he can think of. This, too, is what we expect. He has seen 
through all things, including himself, to the foulness within. 
In self-hatred he cries : 

What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven ?^ 

(111.1.132) 

Therefore why should Ophelia be a 'breeder of sinners'? 

,Why should anyone carry on the stupid act of procreation? 
^Hamlet denies the significance of humanity^There is only 
S>ne course for Ophelia whose beauty perhaps yet echoes in 

Hamlet's mind some faint rhythm, as from a different 

existence, of his old love to cut herself off from contact with 

an unclean and aimless world : 

. . . Go thy ways to a nunnery. (HI. i. 1 34) 

At this point it seems that Hamlet becomes aware of the 
spies behind the arras. He realizes that Ophelia is a decoy. 
He breaks out into uncontrollable hatred and fury. He 
cries: 

Go to, I'll no more on't ; it hath made me mad. 

(m. i. 1 55) 



26 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH. 

His words at the end of this scene are indeed 'wild and 
whirling*. He loses control and gives voice to the loathing 
that is in him, the cynicism that borders on madness. He has 
seen through love. Ophelia once a goddess is a stupid 
doll who 'lisps 7 , 'ambles', and paints her face. Unjust, no 
doubt. It is truth to Hamlet's mind. 

Hamlet in this scene is cruel to Ophelia : so too he is cruel 
to his mother later. He tortures both of them, because he 
once loved them. They agonize him with the remembrance 
of what they once were to him, of what he himself is now. 
There are often moments when reincarnations of what must 
have been his former courteous and kindly nature of 
which we hear, but which we only see by fits and starts 
break through the bitterness of Hamlet as he appears in the 
play, but they do not last: cynicism and consequent cruelty, 
born of the burden of pain within him, blight the spontaneous 
gentleness that occasionally shows itself, strangle it. There 
is a continual process of self-murder at work in Hamlet's 
mind. He is cruel to Ophelia and his mother. He exults in 
tormenting the King by the murder of Gonzago, and when 
he finds him conscience-stricken, at prayer, takes a demoniac 
pleasure in the thought of preserving his life for a more 
damning death : 

Up, sword ; and know thou a more horrid hent : 

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, 

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed ; 

At gaming, swearing, or about some act 

That has no relish of salvation in't; 

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at Heaven, 

And that his soul may be as damn'd and black 

As Hell, whereto it goes. ^ (in. iii. 88) 

With a callousness and a most evident delight that shocks 
Horatio he sends his former school-friends to an undeserved 
death, *not shriving time allowed', again hoping to compass 
the eternal damnation of his enemy (v. ii. 47) : 
Horatio. So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't 
Hamlet. Why, man, they did make love to this employment ; 

They are not near my conscience; their defeat 

Does by their own insinuation grow : 

Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes 

Between the pass and fell incensed points 

Of mighty opposites. (v, ii. 56) 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 2J 

Hamlet thus takes a devilish joy in cruelty towards the end 
of the play: he is like lago. It is difficult to see the con 
ventional courtly Prince of Denmark in these incidents. 
We have done ill to sentimentalize his personality. We have 
paid for it by failing to understand him; and, failing to 
understand, we have been unable to sympathize with the 
demon of cynicism, and its logical result of callous cruelty, 
that has Hamlet's soul in its remorseless grip. Sentiment is 
an easy road to an unprofitable and unreal sympathy. Hamlet 
is cruel/JHe murders Polonius in error: 

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell ! 

I took thee for thy better : take thy fortune ; 

Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger. (m. iv. 3 r) 

He proceeds from this to vile abuse of his own mother: 

Hamlet. Nay, but to live 

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, 

Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love 

Over the nasty sty 
Queen. O, speak to me no more ; 

These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears; 

No more, sweet Hamlet !_J (m. iv. 91) 

At the end of his scene with his mother there is one beautiful 
moment when Hamlet gains possession of his soul : 

For this same lord, 

I do repent: but Heaven hath pleased it so, 
To punish me with this, and this with me. 7l (HI. iv. 172) 

And his filial love wells up in : 

So, again, good-night. 

I must be cruel only to be kind : ---t 

Thus bad begins and worse remains behind. (in. iv. 177) 

But it is short-lived. Next comes a long speech of the most 
withering, brutal, and unnecessary sarcasm : 

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed ; 

Pinch wanton on your cheek ; call you his mouse . . . 

(in. iv. 182) 

Even more horrible are his disgusting words about Polonius, 
whom he has unjustly killed, to the King : 

King. Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius? 
Hamlet. At supper. 



28 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

King. At supper! where? 

Hamlet. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation 
of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for 
diet : we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots : 
your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, 
but to one table : that's the end. 

King. Alas, alas! . 

Hamlet. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of 
the fish that hath fed of that worm. 

King. What dost thou mean by this? 

Hamlet. Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through 
the guts of a beggar. 

King. Where is Polonius? 

Hamlet. In Heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not 
there, seek him i' the other pkce yourself. But indeed, if you find him 
not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into 
the lobby. (iv.iii.i7) 

A long and unpleasant quotation, I know. But it is necessary. 
The horror of humanity doomed to death and decay has 
disintegrated Hamlet's mind. From the first scene to the 
last the shadow of death broods over this play. In the 
exquisite prose threnody of the Graveyard scene the thought 
of physical death is again given utterance. There its pathos, 
its inevitability, its moral, are emphasized: but also its 
hideousness. Death is indeed the theme of this play, for 
Hamlet's disease is mental and spiritual death. So Hamlet, 
in his most famous soliloquy, concentrates on the terrors 
of an after life. The uninspired, devitalized intellect of a 
Hamlet thinks pre-eminently in terms of time. To him, the 
body disintegrates in time; the soul persists in "time too; 
and both are horrible. His consciousness, functioning in 
terms of evil and negation, sees Hell but not Heaven. But the 
intuitive faith, or love, or purpose, by which we must live 
if we are to remain sane, of these things, which are drawn 
from a timeless reality within the soul, Hamlet is unmerci 
fully bereft. Therefore lie dwells on the foul appearances 
of sex, the hideous decay of flesh, the deceit of beauty 
either of the spirit or of the body, the torments of eternity if 
eternity exist. The universe is an 'unweeded garden', or a 
'prison', the canopy of the sky but a 'pestilent congregation 
of vapours', and man but a 'quintessence of dust*, waiting 
for the worms of death. 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 2$ 

It might be objected that I have concentrated unduly on 
the unpleasant parts of the play. It has been my intention 
to concentrate. They are the most significant parts. I have 
tried by various quotations and by suggestive phrases to 
indicate this sickness which eats into Hamlet's soul. Its 
nature^ is pointed further in the chapter entitled 'The Sick 
Soul' in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Now by 
emphasizing these elements in the figure of Hamlet I have 
essayed to pluck out the heart of his mystery. And it will be 
clear that the elements which I have emphasized, the matter 
of Hamlet's madness, his patent cruelty, his coarse humour, 
his strange dialogue with Ophelia, his inability to avenge 
his father's death, are all equally related to the same sickness 
within. The coherence of these elements in the play must 
be evident. Creative action; love; passion all these can 
find none but a momentary home in Hamlet's paralysed 
mind. Before the action of the play, Hamlet was, no doubt 

The glass of fashion and the mould of form. (in. i. 162) 

But that is over or nearly over when Ophelia speaks her 
lovely words. When we first meet Hamlet the poison has 
started its disintegrating work. During the rest of the play 
the outstanding peculiarities of him are his bitterness, his 
disillusionment, his utter loss of purpose: and many of his 
humorous speeches which are often performed as pleasant 
witticisms, or as playful mock-madness, would be more 
truly rendered with the scornful stare and grating voice of 
cynicism. 

The impression of the play, as a whole, is not so gloomy 
as the main theme: if it were, it would not have been so 
popular. There are many individual scenes of action, passion, 
humour, and beauty, that take our thoughts from the 
essentially morbid impact of Hamlet's melancholia. Hamlet 
himself at times recovers his old instinctive friendliness, 
humour, and gentleness. We can guess what he was like 
before. That side of his nature which never quite dies, 
appearing intermittently until the end, is important: it lends 
point and pathos to the inroads of his cynicism and disgust. 
\ His mind wavers between the principle of good, which is 
love, and that of evil, which is loathing and cruelty? But too 



30 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

much emphasis has been laid on this element of Hamlet 
The popularity of the play is not innocent of misunder 
standing. To ignore the unpleasant aspects of Hamlet blurs 
our vision of the protagonist, the play as a whole, and its 
place in Shakespeare's work. The matter of the disease- 
theme in relation to the rest of the play is difficult The total 
impression, the imaginative impact of the whole, leaves us 
with a sense of gaiety, health, superficiality, and colour, 
against which is silhouetted the pale black-robed figure of 
Hamlet who has seen what lies behind the smiles of 
benevolence, who has broken free of the folly of love because 
he has found its inward tawdriness and deceit, who knows 
that king and beggar alike are bound for the same dis 
gusting 'convocation of worms*, and that even an 'indifferent 
honest' man is too vile to be 'crawling between heaven and 
earth'. 

There is no fallacy in Hamlet's reasoning. We cannot 
pick on this or that of his most bitter words, and prove them 
false. The solitary and inactive figure of Hamlet is contrasted 
with the bustle and the glitter of the court, the cancer of 
cynicism in his mind, himself a discordant and destructive 
thing whose very presence is a poison and a menace to the 
happiness and health of Denmark, fulfilling to the letter the 
devilish command of the Ghost: 

Adieu, Adieu, Hamlet, remember me. (i. v. 91) 

Hamlet does not neglect his father's final behest he obeys 
it, not wisely but only too well. Hamlet remembers not 
alone his father's ghost, but all the death of which it is a 
symbol. What would have been the use of killing Claudius ? 
Would that have saved his mother's honour, have brought 
life, to his father's mouldering body, have enabled Hamlet 
himself, who had so long lived in death, to have found again 
childish joy in the kisses of Ophelia? Would that have 
altered the universal scheme ?io Hamlet, the universe 
smells of mortality; and his soufis sick to deathA 

MJ 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 31 

II 

^J 

It is usual in Shakespeare's plays for the main theme to 
JDC reflected in subsidiary incidents, persons, and detailed 
suggestion throughout. Now the theme of Hamkt is death. 
Life that is bound for the disintegration of the grave, love 
that does not survive the loved one's life both, in their 
insistence on death as the primary fact of nature, are branded 
on the mind of Hamlet, burned into it, searing it with 
agony. The bereavement of Hamlet and his consequent 
mental agony bordering on madness is mirrored in the 
bereavement of Ophelia and her madness. The death of the 
Queen's love is reflected in 'the swift passing of the love of 
the Player-Queen, in the 'Murder or Gonzago.' Death is 
over the whole play. Polonius and Ophelia die during the 
action, and Ophelia is buried before our eyes. Hamlet 
arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The 
plot is set in motion by the murder of Hamlet's father, and 
the play opens with the apparition of the Ghost : 

What may this mean, 

That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel 
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon, 
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature 
So horridly to shake our dispositions 
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls? (i. iv. 51) 

Those first scenes strike the note of the play death. We 
hear of terrors beyond the grave, from the Ghost (i. v.) and 
from the meditations of Hamlet (in. i.). We hear of horrors 
in the grave from Hamlet whose mind is obsessed with 
hideous thoughts of the body's decay. Hamlet's dialogue 
with the King about the dead Polonius (iv. iii. 1 7) is painful; 
and the graveyard meditations, though often beautiful, are 
remorselessly realistic. Hamlet holds Yorick's skull : 

Hamlet. . . . Now, get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint 
an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. 
Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing. 

Horatio. What's that, my lord? 

Hamlet. Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth? 

Horatio, E'en so. 

Hamlet. And smelt so? pah ! (v. i. z 1 1 ) 



32 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

The general thought of death, intimately related to _ the 
predominating human theme, the pain in Hamlet's mind, 
is thus suffused through the whole play. And yet the play, 
as a whole, scarcely gives us that sense of blackness and the 
abysms of spiritual evil which we find in Macbeth^ nor is 
there the universal gloom of King Lear. This is due partly to 
the difference in the technique of Hamlet from that of 
Macbeth or King Lear. Macbeth, the protagonist and heroic 
victim of evil, rises gigantic from the murk of an evil 
universe; Lear, the king of suffering, towers over a universe 
that itself toils in pain. Thus in Macbeth and King Lear the 
predominating imaginative atmospheres are used not to 
contrast with the mental universe of the hero, but to aid 
and support it, as it were, with similarity, to render realistic 
the extravagant and daring effects of volcanic passion to 
which the poet allows his protagonist to give voice. We are 
forced by the attendant personification, the verbal colour, 
the symbolism and events of the play as a whole, to feel the 
hero's suffering, to see with his eyes. But in Hamlet this is 
not so. We need not see through Hamlet's eyes. Though 
the idea of death is recurrent through the play, it is not 
implanted in the minds of other persons as is the con 
sciousness of evil throughout Macbeth and the consciousness 
of suffering throughout King Lear. Except for the original 
murder of Hamlet's father, the Hamlet universe is one of 
healthy and robust life, good-nature, humour, romantic 
strength, and welfare: against this background is the figure 
of Hamlet pale with the consciousness of death. He is the 
ambassador of death walking amid life. The effect is at 
first primarily one of separation. But it is to be noted that 
the consciousness of death, and consequent bitterness, 
cruelty, and inaction, in Hamlet not only grows in his own 
mind disintegrating it as we watch, but also spreads its 
effects outward among the other persons like a blighting 
disease, and, as the play progresses, by its very passivity and 
negation of purpose, insidiously undermines the health of 
the state, and adds victim to victim until at the end the stage 
is filled with corpses. It is, as it were, a nihilistic birth in 
the consciousness of Hamlet that spreads its deadly venom 
around. That Hamlet is originally blameless, that the King 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 33 

is originally guilty, may well be granted. But, if we refuse 
to be diverted from a clear vision by questions of praise 
and blame, responsibility and causality, and watch only the 
actions and reactions of the persons as they appear, we shall 
observe a striking reversal of the usual commentary. 

If we are to attain a true interpretation of Shakespeare 
we must work from a centre of consciousness near that of 
the creative instinct of the poet. We must think less in terms 
of causality and more in terms of imaginative impact. Now 
Claudius is not drawn as wholly evil far from it. We see 
the government of Denmark working smoothly. Claudius 
shows every sign of being an excellent diplomatist and 
king. He is troubled by young Fortinbras, and dispatches 
ambassadors to the sick King of Norway demanding that 
he suppress the raids of his nephew. His speech to 
the ambassadors bears the stamp of clear and exact thought 
and an efficient and confident control of affairs: 

. . . and we here dispatch 
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand, 
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway; 
Giving to you no further personal power 
To business with the king, more than the scope 
Of these delated articles allow. 
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty. 

(i. ii. 33) 

The ambassadors soon return successful. Claudius listens to 
their reply, receives the King of Norway's letter, and hears 
that young Fortinbras desires a free pass through Denmark 
to lead his soldiers against the Poles. Claudius answers : 

It likes us well; 

And at our more consider'd time we'll read, 
Answer, and think upon this business. 
Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour : 
Go to your rest; at night we'll feast together: 
Most welcome home! (H. ii. 80) 

Tact has found an easy settlement where arms and opposition 
might have wasted the strength of Denmark. Notice his 
reservation of detailed attention when once he knows the 
main issues are clear; the courteous yet dignified attitude 
to his subordinates and the true leader's consideration for 



34 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

their comfort; and the invitation to the feast. The impression 
given by these speeches is one of quick efficiency the 
efficiency of the man who can dispose of business without 
unnecessary circumstance, and so leaves himself time for 
enjoying the good things of life: a man kindly, confident, 
and fond of pleasure. 

^Throughout the first half of the play Claudius is the 
typical kindly uncle, besides being a good king. His advice 
to Hamlet about his exaggerated mourning for his father's 
death is admirable common sense : 

Fie! Tis a fault to Heaven, 
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, 
To reason most absurd ; whose common theme 
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, 
From the first corse, till he that died to-day, 
'This must be so.' (i. ii. 101) ^ 

It is the advice of worldly common sense opposed to the 
extreme misery of a sensitive nature paralysed by the facts 
of death and unfaithfulness. This contrast points the relative 
significance of the King and his court to Hamlet. They are 
of the world with their crimes, their follies, their shallow- 
nesses, their pomp and glitter; they are of humanity, with 
all its failings, it is true, but yet of humanity. They assert 
the importance of human life, they believe in it, in them 
selves. Whereas Hamlet is inhuman, since he has seen 
through the tinsel of life and love, he believes in nothing, 
not even himself, except the memory of a ghost, and his 
black-robed presence is a reminder to everyone of the fact 
of death. There is no question but that Hamlet is right. 
The King's smiles hide murder, his mother's love for her 
new consort is unfaithfulness to Hamlet's father, Ophelia 
has deserted Hamlet at the hour of his. need. Hamlet's 
philosophy may be inevitable, blameless, and irrefutable. 
But it is the negation of life. It is death. Hence Hamlet is 
a continual fear to Claudius, a reminder of his crime. It is 
a mistake to consider Claudius as a hardened criminal. 
When Polonius remarks on the hypocrisy of mankind, he 
murmurs to himself: 

O, 'tis too true ! 

How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience ! 

The harlot's cheek, beau tied with plastering art, 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 3; 

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it 

Than is my deed to my most painted word : 

O heavy burthen ! {,. j. 49) 

Again, Hamlet's play wrenches his soul with remorse 
primarily not fear of Hamlet, as one might expect, but a 
genuine remorse and gives us that most beautiful prayer 
of a stricken soul beginning, *O, my offence is rank, it smells 
to Heaven* (in. iii. 36): 

. . . What if this cursed hand 
Were thicker than itsdf with brother's blood, 
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens 
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy 
But to confront the visage of offence? 

He fears that his prayer is worthless. He is still trammelled 
by the enjoyment of the fruits of his crime. 'My fault is 
past, 1 he cries. But what does that avail, since he has his 
crown and his queen still, the prizes of murder? His 
dilemma is profound and raises the problem I am pointing 
in this essay. Claudius, as he appears in the play, is not a 
criminal. He is strange as it may seem a good and 
gentle king, enmeshed by the chain of causality linking him 
with his crime. And this chain h? might, perhaps, have 
broken except for Hamlet, and all would have been well. 
But, granted the presence of Hamlet which Claudius at 
first genuinely desired, persuading him not to return to 
Wittenberg as he wished and granted the fact of his 
original crime which cannot now be altered, Claudius can 
hardly be blamed for his later actions. They are forced on 
him. As King, he could scarcely be expected to do otherwise. 
Hamlet is a danger to the state, even apart from his know 
ledge of Claudius' guilt. He is an inhuman or superhuman 
presence, whose consciousness somewhat like Dostoiev 
sky's Stavrogin is centred on death. Like Stavrogin, he is 
feared by those around him. They are always trying in vain 
to find out what is wrong with him. They cannot understand 
him. He is a creature of another world. As King of Denmark 
he would have been a thousand times more dangerous than 
Claudius. The end of Claudius' prayer is pathetic: 

What then? What rests? 
Try what repentance can : what can it not? 



36 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

Vet what can it when one can not repent ? 

O wretched state ! O bosom black as death ! 

O limed soul, that, struggling to be free, 

Art more engaged ! Help, angels! make assay ! 

Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel, 

Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe I 

All may be well. (HI. lii. 64) 

Set against this lovely prayer the fine flower of a human 
soul in anguish is the entrance of Hamlet, the late joy of 
torturing the King's conscience still written on his face, his 
eye a-glitter with the intoxication of conquest, vengeance in 
his mind; his purpose altered only by the devilish hope of 
finding a more damning moment in which to slaughter the 
King, next hastening to his mother to wring her soul too. 
Which then, at this moment in the play, is nearer the 
Kingdom of Heaven ? Whose words would be more accep 
table of Jesus' God ? Which is the embodiment of spiritual 
good, which of evil ? The question of the relative morality 
of Hamlet and Claudius reflects the ultimate problem of this 

$& 

V^lDther eminently pleasant traits can be found in Claudius. 

He hears of Hamlet's murder of Polonius: 

O Gertrude, come away ! 
The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch, 
But we will ship him hence : and this vile deed 
We must, with all our majesty and skill, 
Both countenance and excuse. (iv. i. 28) 

Though a murderer himself, he has a genuine horror of 
^'fh'urcTer. "hrsr does not ring hypocritical. He takes the only 
possible course. Hamlet is a danger: 

His liberty is full of threats to all. (iv. i. 14) 

To hurry him from Denmark is indeed necessary: it is the 
only way of saving himself, and, incidentally, the best line 
of action in the interests of the state. During the scene of 
Ophelia's madness (iv. v.) Claudius shows a true and 
sensitive concern, exclaiming, 'How do you, pretty lady?' 
and 'Pretty Ophelia!' and after he has told Horatio to look 
after her, he speaks in all sincerity to his Queen : 

O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs 

All from her father's death. O Gertrude, Gertrude, 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 37 

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, 

But in battalions. First, her father skin : 

Next, your son gone ; and he most violent author 

Of his most just remove . . . (iv. v. 76) 

He continues the catalogue of ills. The people are dis 
satisfied, Laertes has returned. The problems are indeed 
overwhelming. When Laertes enters, Claudius rouses our 
admiration by his cool reception of him : 

What is the cause, Laertes, 
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like ? 
Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person: 
There's such divinity doth hedge a king, 
That treason can but peep to what it would, 
Acts little of its will. Tell me, Laertes, 
Why thou art thus incensed. Let him go, Gertrude. 
Speak, man. (iv. v. 120) 

When he hears of Hamlet's return he glots treachery with 
LaeHil^^ hi m 

He has, it is true, committed a dastardly murder, but in the 
play he gives us the impression of genuine penitence and a 
host of good qualities. After the murder of Polonius we 
certainly feel that both the King and the Queen are sane and 
doing their level best to restrain the activities of a madman. 
That is the impression given by the play at this point, as we 
read. If we think in terms of logic, we remember at once that 
we must side with Hamlet; and we perhaps remember the 
continual and sudden emergences of a different Hamlet, a 
Hamlet loving and noble and sane. But intermittent madness 
is more dangerous by far than obvious insanity. At the best 
we only prove that Hamlet's madness is justifiable, a state 
ment which makes nonsense; for Hamlet's behaviour, so 
utterly out of harmony with his environment of eminently 
likeable people, in that relation may well be called a kind 
of madness. Whatever it is, it is extremely dangerous and 
powerful. 

I have concentrated on Claudius' virtues. They are 
manifest. So are his faults his original crime, his skill in 
the less admirable kind of policy, treachery, and intrigue. 
But I would point clearly that, in the movement of the play, 
his faults are forced on him, and he is distinguished by 



38 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

creative and wise action, a sense of purpose, benevolence, a 
faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen : 

. . . and for myself 

My virtue or my plague, be it either which 
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul, 
That as the star moves not but in his sphere, 
I could not but by her. (iv. vii. 1 2) 

In short he is very human. Now these are the very qualities 
Hamlet lacks. Hamlet is inhuman. He has seen through 
humanity. And this inhuman cynicism, however justifiable 
in this case on the plane of causality and individual respon 
sibility, is a deadly and venomous thing. Instinctively the 
creatures of earth, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz 
and Guildenstern, league themselves with Claudius: they 
are of his kind. They sever themselves from Hamlet. Laertes 
sternly warns Ophelia against her intimacy with Hamlet, so 
does Polonius. They are, in fact, all leagued against him, 
they are puzzled by him or fear him : he has no friend except 
Horatio, and Horatio, after the Ghost scenes, becomes a queer 
shadowy character who rarely gets beyond 'E'en so, my 
lord', 'My lord ', and such-like phrases. The other per 
sons are firmly drawn, in the round, creatures of flesh and 
blood.TBut Hamlet is not of flesh and blood, he is a spirit 
of penetrating intellect and cynicism and misery, without 
faith in himself or anyone else, murdering his love of 
Ophelia, on the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty, 
torturing Claudius, wringing his mother's heart, a poison in 
the midst of the healthy bustle of the court. He is a superman 
among men. And he is a superman because he has walked 
and held converse with death, and his consciousness works 
in terms of death and the negation of cynicism. He has seen 
the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the 
universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element 
of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison or his mental 
existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, 
like acid eating into metal. They are helpless before his very 
inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an 
infectious disease. They are strong with the strength of 
health but the demon of Hamlet's mind is a stronger thing 
than they* Futilely they try to get him out of their country; 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 39 

anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a 
cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in 
their midst, meditating in graveyards, at home with death. 
Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet 
satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself: 

The spirit that I have seen 
May be the Devil . . / (n. ii. 635) 

It was. 

It was the devil of the knowledge of death, which possesses 
Hamlet and drives him from misery and pain to increasing 
bitterness, cynicism, murder, and madness. He has indeed 
bought converse with his father's spirit at the price of en 
during and spreading Hell on earth. But however much we 
may sympathize with Ophelia, with Polonius, Rosencrantz, 
Guildenstern, the Queen, and Claudius, there is one reser 
vation to be made. It is Hamlet who is right. What he says 
and thinks of them is true, and there is no fault in his logic. 
His own mother is indeed faithless, and the prettiness of 
Ophelia does in truth enclose a spirit as fragile and untrust 
worthy as her earthly beauty; Polonius is *a foolish prating 
knave'; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are time-servers and 
flatterers; Claudius, whose benevolence hides the guilt of 
murder, is, by virtue of that fact, 'a damned smiling villain*. 
In the same way the demon of cynicism which is in the mind 
of the poet and expresses itself in the figures of this play, 
has always this characteristic: it is right. One cannot argue 
with the cynic. It is unwise to offer him battle. For in 
the warfare of logic it will be found that he has all the 
guns. 

In this play we are confronted by a curious problem of 
technique. I pointed out early in this section that the effects 
are gained by contrast, and it will be seen from my analysis 
that this contrast has its powerful imaginative effects. But 
it is also disconcerting. Though we instinctively tend at first 
to adopt the view-point of Hamlet himself, we are not forced 
to do so throughout. My analysis has shown that other 
methods of approach are possible; and, if thev are possible, 
they are, in objective drama, legitimate. It is, indeed, neces 
sary that we should be equally prepared to adopt the point 



40 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

of view of either side, otherwise we are offering a biassed 
interpretation. And though the Hamlet-theme preponderates 
over that of any one other individual in the play, it will be 
clear that Hamlet has set in contrast to him all the other 
persons: they are massed against him. In the universe of 
this play whatever may have happened in the past he is 
the only discordant element, the only hindrance to happiness, 
health, and prosperity: a living death in the midst of life. 
Therefore a balanced judgement is forced to pronounce 
ultimately in favour of life as contrasted with death, for 
optimism and the healthily second-rate, rather than the 
nihilism of the superman : for he is not, as the plot shows, 
safe; and he is not safe, primarily because he is right 
otherwise Claudius could soon have swept him from his path. 
If we think primarily of the state of Denmark during the 
action of the play, we are bound to applaud Claudius, as he 
appears before us: he acts throughout with a fine steadiness 
of purpose. By creating normal and healthy and lovable 
persons around his protagonist, whose chief peculiarity is 
the abnormality of extreme melancholia, the poet divides 
our sympathies. The villain has become a kindly uncle, the 
princely hero is the incarnation of cynicism. It is true that 
if Hamlet had promptly avenged his father, taken the throne, 
forgotten his troubles, resumed a healthy outlook ^ on life, 
he would have all our acclamations. Laertes entering in wrath 
at the death of his father, daring 'damnation* (iv. v. 1 32) and 
threatening Claudius, comes on us like a blast of fresh ^air, 
after the stifling, poisonous atmosphere of Hamlet's mind. 
Laertes and Hamlet struggling at Ophelia's grave are like 
symbols of life and death contending for the prize of love. 
Laertes is brave in his course of loyalty. But to expect such 
a course from Hamlet is to misunderstand him quite and 
his place in the play. The time is out of joint, he is thrown 
out of any significant relation with his world. He cannot 
bridge the gulf by rational action. Nor can he understand 
the rest any more than they understand him. His ideals 
which include an insistent memory of death are worth 
nothing to them, and, most maddening fact of all, they get 
on perfectly well as they are or would do if Hamlet were 
out of the way. Thus, through no fault of his own, Hamlet 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 4! 

has been forced into a state of evil : Claudius, whose crime 
originally placed him there, is in a state of healthy and robust 
spiritual life. Hamlet, and we too, are perplexed. 

Thus Hamlet spends a great part of his time watching, 
analysing, and probing others. He unhesitatingly lances each 
in turn in his weakest spot. He is usually quite merciless. 
But all he actually accomplishes is to torment them all, 
terrorize them. They are dreadfully afraid of him. Hamlet 
is so powerful. He is, as it were, the channel of a mysterious 
force, a force which derives largely from his having seen 
through them all. In contact with him they know their own 
faults: neither they nor we should know them otherwise. 
He exposes faults everywhere. But he is not tragic in the 
usual Shakespearian sense; there is no surge and swell of 
passion pressing onward through the play to leave us, as 
in King Lear, with the mighty crash and backwash of a tragic 
peace. There is not this direct rhythm in Hamlet there 
is no straight course. Instead of being dynamic, the force 
of Hamlet is, paradoxically, static. Its poison is the poison 
of negation, nothingness, threatening a world of positive 
assertion. But even this element is not the whole of Hamlet. 
He can speak lovingly to his mother at one moment, and 
the next, in an excess of revulsion, torment her with a 
withering and brutal sarcasm. One moment he can cry: 

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers 
Could not, with all their quantity of love, 
Make up my sum. (v. i. 291) 

Shortly after he scorns himself for his outbreak. His mind 
reflects swift changes. He may for a moment or two see with 
the eyes of humour, gentleness, love then suddenly the 
whole universe is blackened, goes out, leaves utter vacancy. 
This is, indeed, the secret of the play's fascination and its 
lack of unified and concise poetic statement. Hamlet is a 
dualized personality, wavering, oscillating between grace and 
the hell of cynicism. The plot reflects this see-saw motion; 
it lacks direction, pivoting on Hamlet's incertitude, and 
analysis holds the fascination of giddiness. Nor can Hamlet 
feel anything passionately for long, since passion implies 
purpose, and he has no one purpose for any length of time, 
One element in Hamlet, and that a very important one, is 



42 THE EMBASSY OJF DEATH: 

the negation of any passion whatsoever. His disease or 
vision is primarily one of negation, of death. Hamlet is 
a living death in the midst of life; that is why the play sounds 
the note of death so strong and sombre at the start. The 
Ghost was conceived throughout as a portent not kind but 
sinister. That sepulchral cataclysm at the beginning is the 
key to the whole play. Hamlet begins with an explosion in 
the first act; the rest of the play is the reverberation thereof. 
From the first act onwards Hamlet is, as it were, blackened, 
scorched by that shattering revelation. The usual processes 
reversed and the climax is at the start. Hamlet, already; in 
despair, converses early with death: through the remaining 
acts he lives within that death, remembering the Ghost, 
spreading destruction wherever he goes, adding crime to 
crime, 1 like Macbeth, and becoming more and more callous, 
until his detestable act of sending his former friends to un 
merited death 'not shriving-time allow'd' (v. ii. 47). Finally 
'this fell sergeant, death' (v. ii. 350) arrests him too. This 
is his mysterious strength, ghost-begotten, before which the 
rest succumb. That is why this play is so rich in death why 
its meaning is analysed by Hamlet in soliloquy, why Hamlet 
is so fascinated by the skulls the Grave-digger unearths ; why 
so many 'casual slaughters' and 'deaths put on by cunning 
and forced cause* (v. ii. 393) disrupt the action, till we are 
propelled to the last holocaust of mortality and Fortinbras' 
comment : 

This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death, 

What feast is toward in thine eternal cell, 

That thou so many princes at a shot 

So bloodily hast struck ? (v. ii. 3?8) 

The Ghost may or may not have been a 'goblin damned'; it 
certainly was no 'spirit of health' (i. iv. 40). The play ends 
with a dead march. The action grows out of eternity, closes 
in it. The ominous discharge of ordnance thus reverberates 
three times: once, before Hamlet sees the Ghost, and twice 
in Act v. The eternity of death falls as an abyss at either 
end, and Hamlet crosses the stage of life aureoled in its 
ghostly luminance. 

*An exaggeration. Hamlet's 'crimes' are, properly, two only. See my essay 'Hamlet 
Reconsidered' (1947). 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 43 

III 

This contrast between Hamlet and his world is of extreme 
importance, for it is repeated in different forms in the plays 
to follow. Hamlet contains them all in embryo. They are to 
reflect the contest between (i) human life, and (ii) the prin 
ciple of negation. That principle may be subdivided into 
love-cynicism and death-consciousness, which I elsewhere 
call 'hate* and 'evil', respectively. Troilus and Cressida is con 
cerned with love alone; Othello and also King Lear 
with love until the end, which, by the tragic climax, throws 
the love problem into relation with eternity. Measure for 
Measure is concerned with both death and love. In Macbeth, 
the death-consciousness, as in Hamlet, works chaos and 
destruction on earth. As Hamlet does not know why he 
cannot, or does not, slay Claudius, so Macbeth is quite 
unable to understand why he murders Duncan. The analogy 
is close, since the slaying of Claudius is, to Hamlet at least, 
an act in the cause of life. In Timon of Athens the contrast 
is especially clear. First we have the world of humanity in 
all its glitter and superficial delight : repelled thence the hero 
moves, as it were, with full purposive assurance, within the 
halls of death. In the curious juxtaposition of Hamlet and 
his environment we shall find much of what follows implicit, 
but not unless we concentrate on the main elements of 
Hamlet's mental pain without letting our sympathy for him 
as the hero blur our vision of the gentler qualities of other 
persons. If in our attempt to see with Hamlet's eyes, we are 
prepared to regard Claudius as the blackest of criminals, 
Gertrude as an adulteress, Polonius as a fool, and Ophelia 
as a deceit and a decoy there is no other way we only 
blur our vision of them and consequently our understanding 
of him. The technique of Hamlet is not as that of Macbeth 
or King Lear^ or Timon of Athens. We are forced by the poet 
to suffer the terrors of Macbeth, the agonies of Lear, the 
hate of Timon. But Hamlet has no dominating atmosphere, 
no clear purposive technique to focus our vision. Macbeth 
and Lear, in their settings, are normal; Hamlet, in his, 
abnormal. Hamlet is a creature of a different world, a 
different kind of poetic vision, from the other persons: he 



44 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: 

is incommensurable with them himself of quality akin to 
Macbeth and Lear, he is let loose in the world of Hotspur 
and Henry V. He is thus too profound to be consistently 
lovable. Therefore, unless we forget or cut or distort some 
of the most significant parts of the play as is so often done 
we cannot feel the disgust and nausea that Hamlet feels 
at the wise and considerate Claudius, the affectionate mother, 
Gertrude, the eminently lovable old Polonius, and the 
pathetic Ophelia. But the technical problem here reflects 
a universal problem : that of a mind of 'more than ordinary 
sensibility' revolted by an insensate but beautiful world 
which denies his every aspiration. Which is right? The 
question is asked in Hamlet not by discourse of reason or 
argument, but by two different modes of poetic vision and 
technique: one for Hamlet, one for the other persons. They 
are placed together, and our sympathies are divided. 

A comprehensive view of the whole throws the play into 
significant relation with human affairs. Claudius is a mur 
derer. The ghost of the dead king will not tolerate that he 
so easily avoid the consequences proper to crime, so readily 
build both firmly and well on a basis of evil. This spirit 
speaks to Hamlet alone both because he is his son and 
because his consciousness is already tuned to sympathize 
with death. Two things he commands Hamlet : (i) vengeance, 
and (ii) remembrance. The latter, but not the former, is, 
from the first, branded most deep on Hamlet's mind this 
is apparent from his soliloquy, 'Remember thee! Ay, thou 
poor ghost . . .' (i. v. 95). Hamlet's soul is wrung with 
compassion's agony. He does not obey the command: 

Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing 

To what I shall untold. (i. v. 5) 

The contrast between pity and revenge is clearly pointed 
later : 

Do not look upon me 
Lest with this piteous action you convert 
My stern effects : then what I have to do 
Will want true colour, tears perchance, for blood. 

(in. iv. 126) 

While Hamlet pities he cannot revenge, for his soul is then 



AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 4^ 

sick with knowledge of death and that alone. Now, at the 
start, we hear that 

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (i. iv. 90) 

Claudius must be cast out, as a thing unclean that is the 
Ghost's command. Were Hamlet the possessor of spiritual 
harmony, he might have struck once, and restored perfect 
health to Denmark. That would have been a creative act, 
in the cause of life. But pity enlists Hamlet in the cause not 
of life, but of death : we are thus shown how sickness and 
death-consciousness cannot heal sickness, cannot prescribe 
to life. Hence Hamlet's disordered soul symbolizes itself in 
acts of destruction : he thinks so closely in terms of death 
that he can perform no life-bringing act. Thus thoughts of 
the King's eternal damnation prevent Hamlet from the life- 
bringing act of slaying him as he prays. The destructive 
symbols of his inner disintegration are evident in the inno 
cent blood he sheds, passing by the thing of guilt. Himself 
the ambassador of death, tormented with 'thoughts beyond 
the reaches of our souls' (i. iv. 56), in that dread eminence 
he deals destruction around him. The lesson of the play as 
a whole is something like this Had Hamlet forgotten both 
the Ghost's commands, it would have been well, since 
Claudius is a good king, and the Ghost but a minor spirit; 
had he remembered both it would have been still better 
Hamlet would probably have felt his fetters drop from his 
soul, he would have stepped free, then but not till then 
have been a better king than Claudius, and, finally, the un- 
restful spirit would know peace. But, remembering only the 
Ghost's command to remember, he is paralysed, he lives in 
death, in pity of hideous death, in loathing of the life that 
breeds it. His acts, like Macbeth's, are a commentary on his 
negative consciousness: he murders all the wrong people, 
exults in cruelty, grows more and more dangerous. At the 
end, fate steps in, forces him to perform the act of creative 
assassination he has been, by reason of his inner disintegra 
tion, unable to perform. Not Hamlet, but a greater principle 
than he or the surly Ghost, puts an end to this continual 
slaughter. 

But we properly know Hamlet himself only when he is 



46 THE EMBASSY OF DEATH: AN ESSAY ON HAMLET 

alone with death: then he is lovable and gentle, then he is 
beautiful and noble, and, there being no trivial things of 
life to blur our mortal vision, our minds are tuned to the 
exquisite music of his soul. We know the real Hamlet only 
in his address to the Ghost, in his 'To be or not to be . . .' 
soliloquy, in the lyric prose of the Graveyard scene 

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft ... 

(v. I. 206) 

These touch a melody that holds no bitterness. Here, and 
when he is dying, we glimpse, perhaps, a thought wherein 
death, not life, holds the deeper assurance for humanity. 
Then we will understand why Hamlet knows death to be 
felicity : 

Absent thee from felicity awhile, 

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain 

To tell my story (v. ii. 361) 

The story of a 'sweet prince' (v. ii. 373) wrenched from life 
and dedicate alone to death. 



ADDITIONAL NOTES 

1947. For further remarks on Hamlet, see my chapters 'Symbolic Personi 
fication' and ''Hamlet Reconsidered* in this volume and *Rose of May* in The 
Imperial Theme. 

1953. I find that my reading of Hamlet may be profitably compared with 
that outlined by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy* VII. 



Ill 

THE PHILOSOPHY OF TROILUS 
AND CRESSIDA 



CRESSIDA is more peculiarly analytic 
in language and dramatic meaning than any other 
work of Shakespeare. Often it has been called difficult, 
incoherent* It may be superficially difficult, but it is not 
incoherent. The difficulties, moreover, being essentially 
those of intellectual complexity, lend themselves naturally 
to intellectual interpretation. When once we see clearly the 
central idea it is almost a 'thesis' from which the play's 
thought and action derive their significance, most of the 
difficulties vanish. 

The theme is this. Human values are strongly contrasted 
with human failings. In Shakespeare there are two primary 
values, love and war. These two are vividly present in Troilus 
and Cressida. But they exist in a world which questions their 
ultimate purpose and beauty. The love or Troilus, the 
heroism of Hector, the symbolic romance which burns in 
the figure of Helen these are placed beside the 'scurril 
jests* and lazy pride of Achilles, the block-headed stupidity 
of Ajax, the mockery of Thersites. The Trojan party stands 
for human beauty and worth, the Greek party for the bestial 
and stupid elements of man, the barren stagnancy of intel 
lect divorced from action, and the criticism which exposes 
these things with jeers. The atmospheres of the two opposing 
camps are thus strongly contrasted, and the handing over 
of Cressida to the Greeks, which is the pivot incident of the 
play, has thus a symbolic suggestion. These two primary 
aspects of humanity can next be provisionally equated with 
the concepts 'intuition* and 'intellect*, or 'emotion* and 
'reason*. In the play this distinction sometimes assumes the 
form of an antimony between 'individualism* and 'social 
order*. Now human values rest on an intuitive faith or an 
intuitive recognition: the denial of them which may itself 
be largely emotional if not directly caused by intellectual 
reasoning, is very easily related to such reasoning, and often 

47 



48 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

looks to it for its own defence. Cynicism is eminently logical 
to the modern, post-Renaissance, mind. Therefore, though 
aware that my terms cannot be ultimately justified as exact 
labels for the two faculties under discussion, I use them for 
my immediate purpose to point the peculiar dualism that 
persists in the thought of this play. Thus 'intellect'^ is con 
sidered here as tending towards 'cynicism', and 'intuition' in 
association with 'romantic faith* a phrase chosen to suggest 
the dual values, love and war. We can then say that the root 
idea of Troilus and Cressida is the dynamic opposition in the 
mind of these two faculties : intuition and intellect. 

The language of the play is throughout pregnant with 
close reasoning. Many of the persons think hard and deep : 
the most swift and fleeting of love's glances are subjected to 
piercing intellectual analysis, and the profoundest questions 
of human fate discussed, analysed, dissected. The metaphoric 
phraseology is often rich in philosophic meaning; the primary 
persons, though not alive with the warm humanity of an 
Othello, yet enjoy a strangely vivid vitality of burning 
thought. Those who adhere to the cause of intuition think 
out their intuitions, try to explicate them in terms of intellect. 
Intelligence here is a primary quality: fools are jeered at for 
their blunt wits, wise men display their prolix wisdom, the 
lover analyses the metaphysical implications of his love. We 
are in a metaphysical universe. In the usual Shakespearian 
fashion, the problem of the main theme the rational un- 
trustworthiness in conflict with the intuitive validity of 
romantic sight is reflected throughout the play. We are 
shown throughout different varieties of human vision and 
different grades of human intellect, insensibly merging into 
one another, illustrating the numerous mental reactions of 
man to the realities of love and war. I shall now consider : 
first, two subsidiary scenes of importance illustrating dif 
ferent forms of the intuition-intelligence opposition under 
lying the play's movement; second, the general significance 
of the Greek Party, with especial notice of Thersites; and, 
third, the dominant love-theme of Troilus and Cressida. 

In Act i, Scene iii, the Greek generals discuss the military 
situation. No scene in the play more clearly illustrates and 
more closely defines the peculiar analytic quality here 



TROILUS AND CRESSJDA 49 

obtaining. Agamemnon chides the generals for their 
depression. The Greeks, he says, have had ill-luck; their 
plans have not resulted in the looked-for success. But these 
are God's trials. Not in human success, but in human 
failure, is the essential nobility of man made manifest. When 
fortune smiles all men are alike: 

But, in the wind and tempest of her frown, 

Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan, 

Puffing at all, winnows the light away; 

And what hath mass or matter, by itself 

Lies rich in virtue and unmingled. (i. iii. 2630) 

Agamemnon urges, not stoically but with warmth and feel 
ing, that men should rejoice, not sorrow, at the storms of 
adversity: an admirable philosophy but is its logical result 
likely to win the war? Next Nestor, from whose age the 
thought comes more appropriately, expands the same idea. 
Any frail boat dare sail on a smooth sea; but only a *strong- 
ribb'd bark* dare adventure on a stormy one. He continues : 

Even so 

Doth valour's show and valour's worth divide 
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness 
The herd hath more annoyance by the breese 
Than by the tiger ; but when the splitting wind 
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks, 
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage 
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize, 
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key 
Retorts to chiding fortune. (i. iii. 45-54) 

The imagery and phraseology in both these speeches inevit 
ably call to mind Shakespeare's view of human tragedy. The 
'bark* and the 'tempest' are recurring symbols of tragedy, 
to be found in numerous passages throughout the plays. 
Storms are symbolic of tragedy when they occur in stage 
directions. Its 'tempest* is, in fact, an integral part of the 
Shakespearian tragedy; and Shakespeare's final mystic play, 
The Tempest^ primarily owes its plot and name, not to Sir 
George Somer's shipwreck (with which it may at the same 
time bear a certain secondary relation), but to the very fact 
of this poetic symbol. So Agamemnon and Nestor have 
expressed quite clearly a significant but baffling truth: the 
purely mystic grandeur of tragedy. The view of tragedy as 



THF PHILOSOPHY OF 

essentially a victory which is at the root of our mystic 
understanding of the Christian cross though its validity 
to our imaginations need not be questioned, is yet very 
difficult if we seek for a practical application: logically, it 
would seem to lead to chaos or paralysis of action. Hence 
Ulysses* prolix reply. He answers, not Agamemnon's speech 
alone, but its ultimate implications. Agamemnon's words 
imply a philosophy of life which in turn implies a somewhat 
impractical mind 'in his conduct of the Campaign. Ulysses 
answers with an opposing philosophy which insists on 'order* 
and suggests that Agamemnon has been remiss that the 
Greeks fail through Tack of discipline and unity. His reply 
is that of reason directed against the irrational grandeur of 
tragedy. For the tragic view of human existence, if carried 
to a logical conclusion and correctly symbolized in action, 
will, it would appear, lead to chaos. Order is essential. This 
thought Ulysses expands at great length. Again, Nestor 
counselled the nobility of tragic passion a Lear's or a 
Timon's passion whose accent is tuned to 'retort' to chiding 
fortune in language tempestuous as man's tempestuous fate. 
But if tragic passion be the highest good, if discipline and 
order be not man's ideal and the choice ultimately rests 
between these two then there is an end of natural harmony 
and human civilization : 

And, hark, what discord follows ! each thing meets 
In mere oppugnancy : the bounded waters 
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores 
And make a sop of all this solid globe: 
Strength should be lord of imbecility, 
And the rude son should strike his father dead : 
Force should be right ; or rather, right and wrong, 
Between whose endless jar justice resides, 
Should lose their names and so should justice too. 

(i. iii. no) 

So, indeed, 'justice' does in truth 'lose its name' in King Lear: 
and not in King Lear only, but in all high tragedy properly 
understood. 

Ulysses* speech forms a perfect statement of the case for 
the moral order against the high mystic philosophy of 
tragedy and passion. Nor is this to twist the natural meaning 
of a dramatic speech; for we must observe that the speeches 



TROILVS AA'D CRESSIDA 5 I 

in Troilus and Cressida are primarily analytic rather than 
dramatic, and, if we are to understand its peculiar meaning 
we must be ready, as are the persons of the play, to respond 
to the lightest tones and shades of its philosophy. This 
reading of the argument as a discussion of tragedy does not 
conflict with the dramatic situation. Agamemnon has ex 
pressed a profound and sympathetic commentary on the 
progress of the war. He has spoken like a mystic; but mystics 
seldom make good generals. Agamemnon is thus closely 
analogous to the Duke in Measure for Measure. Both speak 
wisdom, especially the profound mystic wisdom of the tragic 
philosophy. Both are, however, impractical in the ordinary 
sense. From the view-point of Thersites Agamemnon is an 
honest man enough, but a fool (v. i. 568). Ulysses answers 
Agamemnon's gentle and noble acceptance of misfortune 
by suggesting that his actual conduct of the war lacks the 
co-ordinating and directing quality of regal discipline. This 
we can well believe from what we see of the Greek army. 
Thus there are two layers of thought here: the purely 
dramatic and the profoundly universal and philosophic 
meanings. They are not, however, separate, but rather two 
aspects of the same thing. We have an illuminating instance 
or what often happens here: the persons are all obsessed 
with the desire of analysis, and, in the process of their search 
for truth, continually raise the particular into the realm of 
the universal. Here the crucial problem of the play is at issue: 
since intuition and faith accept the tragic philosophy, reason 
and intellect reject it. In this instance, the intuition-intellect 
opposition is obviously one with that of individualism and 
order. Ulysses, exponent always throughout the play of 
reason, statecraft, and order, attacks the intuitional and 
emotional one might almost say the 'sentimental* argu 
ments of Agamemnon and Nestor. And it must be observed 
that both sides use the peculiar Shakespearian symbols of 
disorder and tempest which are fundamental in tragedies 
of the Macbeth and King Lear type. For, besides the tempest- 
imagery of the passages already quoted, there is, in Ulysses' 
speech, a reference to unnatural, disorderly phenomena in 
earth and sky such as I discuss elsewhere in relation to Julius 
Caesar and Macbeth : 



2 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

... but when the planets 
In evil mixture to disorder wander, 
What plagues, and what portents! what mutiny! 
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! 
Commotion in the winds ! fights, changes, horrors, 
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate 
The unity and married calm of states 
Quite from their fixure ! 0- " 94) 

The relevance of this to Shakespearian tragedy is obvious; 
nor could a better commentary be found on Shakespeare's 
disorder-symbolism than this carefully constructed order- 
speech of Ulysses. It should be observed that Ulysses* 
arguments win the day. . 

The next scene I would notice is Act n, Scene 11. The 
Trojans discuss the question of restoring Helen to the Greeks 
and so ending the war. Hector counsels such a course. Helen, 
he says, is not worth the terrific cost in Trojan lives. But 
Troilus always the ardent exponent of absolute faith in 
a supreme value, and the necessity of translating that faith 
into action argues that the King's honour is a thing 
'infinite* in comparison with 'reasons'. The 'infinity' of such 
values as love is in different forms a usual space-metaphor 
in Shakespeare, suggesting the incommensurability of 
quality in terms of quantity. This dialogue and indeed the 
whole play is an interesting antidote to the commentary 
that observes no original philosophic thought in Shakespeare : 

7Vf /;. Fie, fie, my brother ! 

Weigh you the worth and honour of a king 
So great as our dread father in a scale 
Of common ounces ? will you with counters sum 
The past proportion of his infinite ? 
And buckle in a waist most fathomless 
With spans and inches so diminutive 
As fear and reasons ? fie, for godly shame ! 

(ii.ii.25) 

To which Helenus answers: 

No marvel, though you bite so sharp at reasons, 
You are so empty of them. Should not our father 
Bear the great sway of his affairs with reasons, 
Because your speech hath none that tells him so? 

(ii. ii. 33) 



TROILUS AXD CRESS ID A 53 

Troilus' answer is withering. Reasons, he says, will always 
counsel cowardice: 

. . . Nay, if we talk of reason, 

Let's shut our gates and sleep; manhood and honour 
Should have hare-hearts, would the}' but fat their thoughts 
With this cramm'd reason : reason and respect 
Make livers pale and lustihood deject. 

(n. ii. 46) 

From this point the argument gets into deep waters : 

Hector. Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost 

The holding. 

Troilus. What is aught, but as 'tis valued ? 
Hector. But value dwells not in particular will ; 

It holds his estimate and dignity 

As well wherein 'tis precious of itself 

As in the prizer : 'tis mad idolatry 

To make the service greater than the god ; 

And the will dotes that is attributive 

To what infectiously itself affects, : 

Without some image of the affected merit. 

(ii. ii. 51) 

Hector takes his stand on the objectivity of pure value: 
subjective emotion by itself weighs nothing it is senti- 
mentalism, idolatry. The passion ('will 1 ) 1 which infects an 
object in imagination with those very qualities for which 
it worships it is clearly absurd: it must have at least some 
clear-cut and objective image or concept of the quality which 
it adores. The word 'image' is chosen for its clear suggestion 
of objectivity. 

Troilus' answer is of extreme importance. It is difficult. 
The first pregnant eight lines are as follows : 

I take to-day a wife and my election 

Is led on in the conduct of my will; 

My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears, 

Two traded pilots 'twixt the dangerous shores 

Of will and judgement; how may I avoid, 

Although my will distaste what it elected, 

The wife I chose ? there can be no evasion 

To blench from this and to stand firm by honour. 

(n. ii, 61) 

1 'Will' is often to be equated with 'passion' in Shakespeare: see Antony and Cleopatra, 
in. rL 3, and OtAello, HI. iii. 232. In these passages 'will* is contrasted with 'reason* and 
'judgement*. The emotional quality implicit in the 'will* concept of Shakespeare is important. 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF 



This outlines a metaphysic of symbolism which is^ sug 
gested by other passages of Shakespeare and especially in the 
imagery of this play a philosophy which seems to regard 
the sha'pes of materiality as bodies infused into life by the 
vitality of the regarding mind: matter the symbol of spirit. 
First, we must see clearly that 'will* stands for instinctive, 
unconscious passion. Troilus' meaning then is: To-day I 
take a wife, and my choice of her is directed by the urging 
power of instinctive 'will', erotic desire; this unconscious 
instinct having been kindled to self-expression by my senses, 
which serve as skilled pilots to navigate the dangerous waters 
between unconscious instinct and conscious judgement. That 
is, dormant desire in me has been awakened by my discover 
ing a sensuous image or symbol of that desire, which image 
serves to bridge the gulf between consciousness and uncon 
sciousness, between mind and soul. The suggestion is that 
the lover sees his own soul reflected in what he loves. He 
awakes to self-knowledge by seeing. His sensuous perception 
allows his nameless unconscious desire to reach fulfilment 
in self-consciousness, or 'judgement 1 , In this speech we have 
a careful analysis of love's intuition: and thence, perhaps, 
we may deduce a corresponding though less vivid process 
of ordinary sensuous perception. It will be clear that the 
reasoning and analysis of this play go deep : it will be clear 
that the mind of Shakespeare is here intensely engaged with 
purely philosophic issues. So Troilus champions the cause 
of intuition, of immediate values. But he is not consistent. 
For, once having made a choice, he says, it must be a point 
of honour to keep to it. Yet, we might ask, if immediate 
values are everything, why not let one value succeed another ? 
When the 'will* does 'distaste what it elected', why not find 
a new sensuous image to satisfy it? To argue otherwise seems 
to call in the aid of the much-despised 'reason'. This is, 
indeed, at the root of Troilus* love-tragedy. His nature must 
be loyal to the dictates of a supreme intuition : but the stream 
of events takes its logical course in hideous reversal of his 
faith. 

The question of Helen is discussed throughout the scene: 
throughout the scene the thinking is intricate and subtle, 
yet voiced with fervour and poetic colour. Paris, like Troilus, 



TROILUS AND C RE SSI DA 55 

takes his stand on points of 'honour'. Hector quotes Aristotle, 
and sums up the discussion, urging the sanctity of marriage, 
the moral imperative of Helen's restoration, and then, after a 
speech of cogent reasoning, curiously concludes by asserting: 

Hector's opinion 

Is thus in way of truth : yet ne'ertheless, 
My spritely brethren, I propend to you 
In resolution to keep Helen still, 
For 'tis a cause that has no mean dependence 
Upon our joint and several dignities. (n. ii. i gg) 

The balance is just. Troilus' argument of immediate values 
does not altogether satisfy our practical reason. Hector's is 
eminently logical but he himself does not act on it. And 
just in this indecisive fashion do human acts and judgements 
interpenetrate and preclude each other. Here, we should 
note, the adherents of intuition win against the rationalists. 

I have noticed these two scenes in order to point the 
peculiar nature of this play: its analytic and metaphysical 
quality. In both scenes the argument may be said to concern 
some form of the intuition-intellect opposition: the oppo 
sition from which is struck the spark of the central love- 
theme of Troilus. But before I pass to this the central theme 
of the play, I shall indicate briefly certain important strata 
of the life-view expressed in some other subsidiary scenes 
and persons on the side of the Greek party. This view is 
pre-eminently analytic and critical: and where it is critical, 
criticism is levelled, not as in Measure for Measure, against 
moral failings^ but rather against lack of wisdom and intel 
lect. This critical attitude extends from the studied commen 
tary of Ulysses to the violent invectives of Thersites. The 
figures of Achilles and Ajax are selected for especial satire, 
and their behaviour shown not so much as immoral as 
essentially stupid. 

Achilles sulking in his tent is conceived as a man of bodily 
strength, supreme egotism, and lack of intellect. Ulysses 
describes the lazy and licentious amusements of Achilles and 
Patroclus 'mocking the designs' of the leaders and breaking 
'scurril jests' (i. iii. 146). He concludes: 

And in this fashion, 
All our abilities, gifts, natures, shapes, 



^6 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

Severals and generals of grace exact, 

Achievements, plots, orders, preventions, 

Excitements to the field, or speech for truce, 

Success or loss, what is or is not, serves 

As stuff for these two to make paradoxes. (i. in. 178) 

Satire here is two-edged: Achilles, proud only of his personal 
strength, is a creature essentially absurd; but so, also, his 
criticisms of the generals, and their own laboured and long- 
winded annoyance at his mockery, render their prided 
authority and intellect itself ridiculous. We cannot but enjoy 
the keen satire of Achilles' speech to Patroclus: 

To him, Patroclus ; tell him I humbly desire the valiant Ajax to invite the 
most valorous Hector to come unarmed to my tent, and to procure safe- 
conduct for his person of the magnanimousand most illustrious six-or-seven- 
times-honoured captain-general of the Grecian Arm/, Agamemnon, &c. 

(HI. iii. 277) 

Achilles, says Ulysses, recognizes no value in intellect. He 
and Patroclus 

Forestall prescience and esteem no act 

But that of hand : the still and mental parts, 

That do contrive how many hands shall strike, 

When fitness calls them on, and know by measure 

Of their observant toil the enemies* weight 

Why this hath not a finger's dignity: 

They call this bed-work, mappery, closet-war; 

So that the ram that batters down the wall. 

For the great swing and rudeness of his poise, 

They place before his hand that made the engine, 

Or those that with the fineness of their souls 

By reason guide his execution. (i. iii. 199) 

Nestor's conclusion is unanswerable: 

Let this be granted, and Achilles' horse 

Makes many Thetis* sons. (i. iii. 211) 

But neither Agamemnon, with his companions Nestor and 
Ulysses, nor Achilles seem worthy of admiration. The staff 
are incapable of anything but futile and prolix talk; Achilles 
and Ajax are both hopelessly spoilt by egotism and pride. 
This theme is continued by the stafFs choice of Ajax to 
oppose Hector, thus enabling them to pretend that they rely 
no more on Achilles: which plan succeeds in rousing Achilles 
from his swelled-headed laziness and insolence, The scene 



TROILUS AND CRESSIDA $J 

(in. iii) where Ulysses broaches the matter to Achilles 
deserves attention. The nature of pride is keenly analysed. 
No man is 'the lord of anything' till he sees his qualities 
reflected among others. Just as beauty is visible not to the 
owner but to those around, just as the eye needs a mirror 
if it is to see itself, so all human qualities are practically 
non-existent until expressed, and not known by the originator 
until seen to be reflected. Individual pride is thus condemned, 
not as wicked, but as metaphysically unsound, and the 
shallowness of Achilles' behaviour exposed as a thing of 
folly. The insistence here is always on things of the mind, 
the criticism and satire directed against folly. Ulysses, too, 
points out that Achilles does ill to rest on his past laurels. 
Time will destroy past glories and there is no continued 
honour save to the man whose acts keep pace with time. 
All fine qualities are subject to 'envious and calumniating 
time* (in. iii. 174). With these arguments Ulysses has his 
way. Again, Ulysses' victory is a victory of intellect over 
intuition: he shows individualism to be not merely wrong, 
or even unwise, but non-existent. For, since he attacks 
(i) individualism and (ii) faith in an immediate reality with 
out reference to time, with the arguments of man's social 
dependence and the validity of the time-sequence, he is 
clearly pursuing his former philosophy of reason and order 
against a form of intuition. This is further shown by his fine 
words on the 'soul of state* which, he says, knows all the 
details of Achilles' love passages with Polyxena of Troy 
(in. iii. 195207), This scene exposes the weakness of 
individualism, its rational absurdity. Achilles is convinced. 
He decides to bestir himself, his folly exposed. 

Both Achilles and Ajax the latter conceived as a hope 
less blockhead are butts for the invectives of Thersites. 
Thersites, indeed, grows naturally from this intellectual 
satirical atmosphere. He is cynicism incarnate: a demoniac 
spirit of keen critical apprehension, who sees the stupid and 
sordid aspects of mankind, fit only for jeers with which he 
salutes them in full measure. His critical intellect measures 
man always by intellectual standards. He sees folly every 
where, and finds no wisdom in mankind's activity. He sees 
one side of the picture only: man's stupidity. He is blind 



{ THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

to man's nobility. The choice is between these two. For, if 
values of beauty, love, goodness, honour, be subtracted from 
our view of man, what is left is profoundly stupid: a critical 
intellect can prove almost any endeavour to be meaningless, 
any end illogical, any passionate hope a delusion. What is 
left is an animal aping something which he cannot attain, 
with no inherent reason for his absurd pride. Thersites' 
satire is thus eminently comparable with Swift's: Gulliver's 
Travels is an illuminating and exquisitely apt commentary 
on this especial mode of the Shakespearian hate-theme which 
sets the stage for Troilus and Crtssida. As Achilles says: 

My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr'd; 

And I myself see not the bottom of it . . . (in. iii. 3 X 4) 

Thersites comments to himself, 

Would the fountain of your mind were clear again, that I might uater 
an ass at it ! I had rather be a tick in a sheep than such a valiant ignorance. 

(in. Hi. 316) 

His favourite target is Ajax. The others recognize^ Ajax* 
stupidity and Ulysses especially makes wit-capital of it; but 
Thersites glories in it: 

. . . thou art here but to thrash Trojans; and thou art bought and sold 
among those of any wit, like a barbarian skve. (n. i. 50) 

Ajax, says Thersites, 'wears his wit in his belly and his guts 
in his head* (11. i. 78). Thersites* hate of man is, however, 
universal: it so warps his mind that he levels a sweeping 
condemnation of their miserable stupidity wholesale. He 
addresses Patroclus : 

. . . The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in 
great revenue ! Heaven bless thee from a tutor, and discipline come not 
near thee \ Let thy blood be thy direction to thy death ! 

(n. iii. 30) 

This last sentence illustrates the positive side of Thersites' 
hate: he is disgusted at man's uncontrolled instincts and 
passions (' blood') which assume proportion to his lack of 
intellect. The whole matter of the war is absurd to him: 
'all the argument is a cuckold and a whore* (n. iii. 79). He in 
cludes Agamemnon and Menelaus in his category of despisal 
(v. i. 5375); also Diomed (v. i. 981 10). Patroclus 



TROILVS AND CRESS1DA 59 

is thought to be Achilles' 'masculine whore' (v. i. 20). 
Lechery, pride, stupidity, wars this is Thersites' vision 
of human activity. These are the rock-bottom realities 
glossed over by the film of irrational supposed Values'. As 
the play's action speeds up in the fierce fighting at the end, 
when passion burns high in war, Thersites stands behind 
the fight of Paris and Menelaus, mocking: 

The cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now, bull! now, dog! 

'Loo, Paris, 'loo! now my double-henned sparrow! 'loo Paris, 'loo! 

The bull has the game : ware horns, ho ! (v. vii. 9) 

One should observe how well Thersites succeeds: he here 
makes the contestants look blatantly ridiculous. But he, too, 
is distorted, deformed, absurd. He knows it: 

I am a bastard, too: I love bastards: I am a bastard begot, bastard in 
structed, bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in everything illegitimate. 

(v. vii. 17) 

It is true. So, too, the critical intellect by itself, unaided and 
unimpelled by intuition or some mode of faith, contains the 
seeds of its own destruction: it is self-contradictory, un- 
creative, deformed. 

Thersites is the extreme personification of the view of life 
developed in the Greek party of Troilus and Cressida* We 
partly endorse his opinion, without countenancing his 
manners. Mankind and their loves and wars are successfully 
satirized. The whole business of this war, indeed, seems 
particularly pointless. This is emphasized by Diomed in 
conversation with Paris. Paris asks who deserves Helen best, 
he or Menelaus. Diomed replies bitterly that both merit 
alike who seek her 'with such a hell of pain and world of 
charge' (iv, i. 57), continuing with the thought that she is 
already dishonoured and utterly valueless: 

Paris. You are too bitter to your countrywoman. 
Diomed. She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris: 

For every false drop in her bawdy veins 

A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple 

Of her contaminated carrion weight, 

A Trojan hath been slain : since she could speak, 

She hath not given so many good words breath 

As for her Greeks and Trojans saffer'd death. (iv. i. 67) 

The action of the play is thus shown here to be rotten at 
its core. 



60 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

Though the Greek camp is throughout under the shadow 
of cynicism we must remember that Agamemnon and 
Nestor cannot escape our satiric sense, since there is some 
thing strangely ineffectual in their acts and words the 
Trojans are presented very differently. Whereas the Greeks 
represent 'intellect 1 in our crude division, the Trojans stand 
for 'intuition'. True, on each side there are verbal conflicts 
between points of view corresponding to these labels, as I 
have shown : yet in the Greek discussion the rationalist, and 
in the Trojan'the emotional, argument gains the ascendency. 
The contrast between the two camps is marked by the 
Pandarus and Thersites conceptions. Pandarus' humour is 
always kindly and sympathetic, Thersites' cynical and 
mocking. From the start Pandarus' fussy interest in his 
young mends 1 love-adventure is truly delightful: 

Go to, a bargain made: seal it, seal it; I'll be the witness. Here I hold 
jour hand, here my cousin's. (HI. ii. 204) 

We must not be repelled by Pandarus* lax morality in 
helping these two to illicit love: since, in so far as we regard 
their love as illicit, we are clearly missing the whole point 
of this theme. We must see clearly that no such moral 
criticism may be levelled against Troilus as he is presented 
and depicted within the action of this play. Troilus' love 
is throughout hallowed by his constancy, his fire, his truth: 

I am as true as truth's simplicity 

And simpler than the infancy of truth. (in. ii. 176) 

It is conceived and presented throughout as a thing essen 
tially pure and noble. Pandarus' part in this love-story 
exactly corresponds, at the start, to that of the Nurse in 
Romeo and Juliet. But when tragedy overtakes the lovers, 
he is nearer akin to the Fool in King Lear. Like the Fool, 
he attempts to relieve the tension by a strained comedy : 

What a pair of spectacles is here! Let me embrace too. *O heart', as the 
goodly saying is, 

*. . . O heart, heavy heart, 
Wny sigh'st thou without breaking ?' 

Where he answers again, 

* Because thou canst not ease thy smart 
By friendship nor by speaking.' 



TR01LUS AND CRESSIDA 6l 

There was never a truer rhyme. Let us cast away nothing for we may 
live to have need of such a verse : we see it, we see it. How now, lambs ? 

(iv. iv. 14) 

Towards the end, he is deeply sympathetic. He hands 
Troilus a letter from the faithless Cressid : 

Pandarus. Here's a letter come from yond poor girl. 

Troilus. Let me read. 

Pandarus. A whoreson tisick, a whoreson rascally risick so troubles me, 
and the foolish fortune of this girl ; and what one thing, what another, 
that I shall leave you one o' these days : and I have a rheum in mine eyes 
too, and such an ache in my bones, that, unless a man were cursed, I 
cannot tell what to think on't. What says she there? (v. iii. 99) 

That holds the true pathos of humour vanquished by 
tragedy. The conception of Pandarus is one of the most 
exquisite things in this play. But not only is Pandarus' 
humour like health-bringing sunshine compared with the 
sickly eclipsing cynicism of Thersites* jeers : the Trojans 
are conceived throughout on an heroic and chivalrous plane. 
Troilus is a 'prince of chivalry* (i. ii. 246), and Hector 
'in the vein of chivalry* (v. iii. 32); phrases which point a 
quality ever present among the Trojans. Honour is their 
creed, they hold beauty as a prize, and behave and speak 
like men dedicate to high purposes: 

Life every man holds dear; but the brave man 

Holds honour far more precious dear than life. (v. iii. 27) 

This is typical : 

Can it be 

That so degenerate a strain as this 
Should once set footing in your generous bosoms? 
There's not the meanest spirit on our party 
Without a heart to dare or sword to draw 
When Helen is defended, nor none so noble 
Whose life were ill-bestowed, or death unfamed 
Where Helen is the subject. (n. ii. 1 53) 

With them there is room for romance, sacrifice, love. Their 
world is conceived imaginatively, picturesquely: knights of 
valour pass one by one returning from battle, praised in turn 
by Pandarus; Cassandra's prophecies and Andromache's 
dreams suggest the infinite and the unknown purposes of 
fate or God; the strains of music herald the entry of Helen, 



62 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

queen of romance. Among them we find love and honour 
of parents, humour, conviviality, patriotism: all which are 
lacking among the Greeks. The Trojans remain firm in their 
mutual support. Their cause is worthy, if only because they 
believe in it. They speak glittering words of honour, 
generosity, bravery, love. Here is a strange and happy 
contrast with the shadowed world of the Greek camp, where 
all seems stagnant, decadent, paralysed. Troy is a world 
breathing the air of medieval, storied romance; the Greek 
camp exists on that of Renaissance satire and disillusion. 
There is thus a sharp dualism of two world-views: the 
romantic contrasted with the cynical. Between these two 
modes of consciousness Troilus* mind is drawn asunder until 
he finds no 'rule in unity itself: Cressida passes from Troy 
and his love over to the Greeks and the loose wantonness 
of Diomed. Thus between the glancing lights of romance 
and the shadows of cynicism is worked out the philosophic 
love-story of Troilus and Cressida. The larger dualism reflects 
the central one : and both may be roughly equated with the 
intuition-intellect opposition, 

Troilus is shown to us as an ardent and faithful lover, 
faithful as he more than once says to "simplicity*. Cressida 
is shallow and indirect in her thinking and behaviour, 
though we need not suppose her love for Troilus, whilst 
it lasts, to be insincere. Now Troilus' love is from the first 
unrestful. In Romeo and Juliet the adverse forces work from 
without: here they are implicit within long before the separa 
tion of the lovers. This is the primary difference between 
the early and the later play. When we first meet Troilus 
he is in agonies of unsatisfied aspiration; and he seems 
throughout the play aware that his love-aspiration is such 
that it probably cannot be satisfied. In the first scene we 
see him deserting the value of war for that of love, and 
analysing this new and potent reality that has claimed his 
heart: 

Peace, you ungracious clamours ! peace, rude sounds ! 

Fools on both sides ! Helen must needs be fair, 

When with your blood you daily paint her thus. 

I cannot fight upon this argument ; 

It is too starved a subject for my sword. 

But Pandarus Oh gods, how do you plague me ! 



TRQILVS AND CRESS ID A 63 

I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar; 

And he's as tetchy to be woo'd to woo, 

As she is stubborn-chaste against all suit. 

Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne's love, 

What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we? 

Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl: 

Between our Ilium and where she resides, 

Let it be called the wild and wandering flood, 

Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar 

Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark. (i. i. 94) 

This is Shakespeare's usual love-symbolism. The loved one 
is costly merchandise or a rich stone, across the sea. 1 The 
tempestuous waves of temporal conditions sever the lover 
from the impossible fruition of his love. On these waters of 
tragedy the frail bark of the individual mind must set its 
sails to the rough seas and the winds of time (see p. 53, 
n. ii. 64-5). Troilus in love pauses to ask what exactly are 
the elements which make up this overpowering reality. There 
are three: (i) the lover, (ii) the objective image of love to 
which he aspires, (iii) the flux of chance and change in the 
temporal scheme which parts the first two. This speech is an 
instance of purely metaphysical thought given the concrete 
forms of poetry: or, more truly, an instance of pure poetic 
thought which lends itself to a clear intellectual paraphrase. 
From the very start we are thus aware of the peculiarly 
analytic cast or Troilus' love : he is throughout a metaphysical 
lover. 

Next Troilus' suit prospers: hence his vigorous defence 
of values and heroic action in the cause of Troy which I 
have already noted. The successful lover sees all lire's adven 
ture in terms of romance, and is strong in the glistening 
armour of vision. But when the time comes for him to 
encounter Cressid his mind again recoils in dismay from the 
feared impossibility of actual fruition : 

Trotlus. I am giddy; expectation whirls me round. 
The imaginary relish is so sweet 
That it enchants my sense : what will it be, 

1 Romeo and Juliet, L, v. 50; n. n. 83-45 Otktlh, ir. i. 83 ; The Mercktnt of Venice, ii. 
viL 448; Troilus axd Cresade* ii, ii, 81-3, Sonnet ixxxvi, 1-2. LOTC, merchandise or rich 
stones, and dangerous sea journeys appear to be related in Shakespeare's imagination* The 
metaphor of 'jewel* or 'pearl* occurs frequently in Shakespeare's love-imagery : 0//W/0, t, iii. 
46; 



195, v. ii. 346; Cym&elmey I. iv. 82-7, and 170 } A Midstaamer-ftigkfs Dream, iv. i. 197 ; 
Ttoo Gentlemen of feroita, it. iv. 170-2 and elsewhere throughout the plays and sonnets. 



64 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

When that the watery palate tastes indeed 

Love's thrice-repured nectar? death, I fear me, 

Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, 

Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, 

For the capacity of my ruder powers: 

I fear it much; and I do fear besides, 

That I shall lose distinction in my joys: 

As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps 

The enemy flying. (in. n. 17) 

Troilus fears that love's reality is a thing essentially beyond 
the capacity of the individual mind: that the mind must 
break in the attempt to compass it in all its infinity of delight. 
Here again we see the difference from the time of Romeo: 
Romeo had no such fears he was the instinctive and boyish 
lover thwarted by fate. Troilus is by way of being a meta 
physical lover thwarted inwardly by the fine knowledge of 
human limitations. For Troilus' mind in love aspires only 
to the infinite, as he says in his dialogue with Cressid a little 
further on : 

This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and 

the'eiecution confined, that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave 

to limit. (in. 11.85) 

The prose dialogue of the lovers' first meetings is, indeed, 
throughout pregnant with meaning. And its studied, cour 
teous manner is noteworthy. After the fiery imaginations 
of Troilus' love-thoughts, comes the impact of actuality 
he meets Cressid in the flesh, and is embarrassed. All he 
can say on first meeting her is : 

O Cressida, how often have I wished me thus ! (HI. ii. 63) 

an exquisite touch of psychology. But they soon warm^to 
more poetic ardour yet even then Troilus is beset with 
anxiety. He is never at ease, in all the course of his love: 

O that I thought it could be in a woman 

As, if it can, I will presume in you 

To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love ; 

To keep her constancy in plight and youth, 

Outliving beauty's outward, with a mind 

That doth renew swifter than blood decays ! 

Or that persuasion could but thus convince me, 

That my integrity and truth to you 

Might be affronted with the match and weight 

Of such a winnow'd purity in love; 



TROILUS AXD CttESSIDA 6$ 

How were I then uplifted ! but, alas ! 

I am as true as truth's simplicity 

And simpler than the infancy of truth* (m. ii. 165) 

Such a desire is irrational: it is trying to make infinite a 
thing which is 'a slave to limit*. The mystic apprehension 
of romantic love cannot be perfectly bodied into symbols 
of sex throughout a lifetime: yet this is Troilus' desire the 
desire of all who love passionately, while they love pas 
sionately. The immediate experience is all-conquering: an 
experience of something ineffable and infinite. But no finite 
symbols can contain it through the stretch of years and if 
they could, it would be limited in time by death. And here 
we are at the core of this play's philosophy. 

It is the arch-enemy, Time, that kills values. When we 
next meet the lovers, they have reached the physical fruition 
of love. It is early morning, and they part to the notes of the 
morning lark, like Romeo and Juliet. Romeo was forced to 
leave Juliet by the laws of Verona : but, before ever Troilus 
and Cressida are forced to part, Troilus shows us that no 
physical act can sate his aspiration and his complaint is 
levelled against time, the destroyer of love-moments : 

Troilus. O Cressida ! but that the busy day, 

Waked by the lark, hath roused the ribald crows, 

And dreaming night will hide our joys no longer, 

I would not from thee. 

CressiJa. Night hath been too brief. 

Troilus. Beshrew the witch 1 with venomous wights she stays 

As tediously as hell, but Sies the grasps of love 

With wings more momentary swift than thought. 

You will catch cold, and curse me. (iv. ii. 8) 

Notice how, with the last line, we are aware of the cold 
realism which succeeds the faery consciousness of love; 
notice, too, the time-thought the thought of the swift 
passage of intuitions, the swift passing of love's enjoyment, 1 
Time-imagery is recurrent and magnificent in Trottus and 
Cressida beyond any other of Shakespeare's plays. Cressida 
speaks a noble passage in swearing her love: 

If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth, 
When time is old and hath forgot itself, 

1 The swiftness of intuitive thoughts in the mind is to be related to the swift-pissing of 
love's enjoyment in the flux of time. See below, 'Notes on the Text of Haxtlet', Note B. 



66 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy, 

And blind oblivion swallow'd cities up, 

And mighty states characterless are grated 

To dusty nothing, yet let memory, 

From false to fake, among false maids in love, 

Upbraid my falsehood ! (m. a. I9 1 ) 

And, later, she says: 

Time, force, and death 
Do to this body what extremes you can. (iv. ii. 108) 

Troilus curses time when Cressida is taken from him: 

Injurious time, now with a robber's haste 

Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how: 

As many farewells as be stars in heaven, 

With distinct breath and consigned kisses to them, 

He fumbles up into a loose adieu, 

And scants us with a single famish'd kiss, 

Distasted with the salt of broken tears. (iv. iv. 42) 

Hector tells us 

. . . The end crowns all, 
And that old common arbitrator, Time, 
Will one day end it. (iv. v. 223) 

Nestor is a 

. . . good old chronicle 
That hast so long walked hand in hand with time. (i v. v. 201 ) 

The creating mind of the poet seems to have been obsessed 
in the writing of this play by the concept of time: it keeps 
recurring in one form or another. Agamemnon though 
a Greek, we remember he hankers after 'intuition' wel 
comes Hector as a guest, and gives him offer of immediate 
and present love irrespective of future and past events, again 
working on the negative aspect of the same idea : 

What's past and what *s to come is strew'd with husks 

And formless ruin of oblivion, 

But in this extant moment, faith and troth, 

Strain'd purely from all hollow bias-drawing, 

Bids thee with most divine integrity 

From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome. (iv. v. 165) 

We have, too, Ulysses* long and elaborate speech on time, 
commencing 



TROILUS AND CRESSIDA 6j 

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, 

Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, 

A great-sized monster of ingratitudes; 

Those scraps are good deeds past : which are devour'd 

As fast as they are made, forgot as soon 

As done. (in. iii. 145) 

Again, further on : 

O, let not virtue seek 
Remuneration for the thing it was; 
For beauty, wit, 

High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service, 
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all 
To envious and calumniating time. 

But if time is the destroyer, it is also that in which 'shapes' 
of actuality are born. Says Ulysses: 

I have a young conception in my brain ; 

Be you my time to bring it to some shape. (i. iii. 3 r 2) 

This is a usual Shakespearian phraseology: 'shapes* or 
'bodies' are given to things of the mind or spirit, 'born 1 in 
'time*. More 'time* references occur in this play at iv* v. 2, 
where Agamemnon talks of 'anticipating time with starting 
courage*, and at i. ii. 82, where Pandarus says, 'Time must 
friend or end*. The time-thinking in this play is inextricably 
twined with the central love-theme. Troilus is throughout 
half-conscious of the fact that his love is destined to disaster 
in the world of flesh: it is a spiritual and delicate thing 
incapable of continued expression and satisfaction among 
the rough chaotic and temporal symbols of actuality. Hence 
his reference to Pandarus love's medium as *our doubtful 
hope, our convoy, and our bark* : in the seas of time the 
frail bark of the soul's desire is to steer a dangerous course. 
Hence, too, his analysis of love's intuition, in which the 
senses are 'the traded pilots twixt the dangerous shores of 
will and judgement*. The most fleeting of love*s glances has 
to put out on the waters of sense-perception, that is of 
materiality, and so of time for time and materiality as 
normally understood must be considered as interfused and 
intrinsicate. Throughout this play, in compressed metaphor, 
in self-conscious and detailed analysis, and thence to dialogue 
and incident, we have a philosophy of love which regards 



68 THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

it as essentially un-at-home in time and incapable of con 
tinued concrete embodiment in the difficult flux of events. 
The love-interest turns on this theme : the theme of imme 
diate value, killed, or apparently killed, by time; which is 
again the purest form of the intuition-intellect opposition, 
since intellect and the time concept are interdependent, and 
irrational or super-rational faith of some kind or another can 
alone open to the mind a consciousness beyond the temporal, 
knowledge of a timeless reality. 

Troilus has to part with Cressid: the course of events now 
leagues itself with Troilus' metaphysical difficulties against 
his love-aspiration. Or, to put it more crudely from the 
view of Pandarus he at last has a real and honest reason for 
complaining against the difficulties and limitations of his 
love. Just before she leaves him, Aeneas calls, and Troilus 
says: 

Hark ! you are call'd : some say the Genius so 

Cries 'Come' to him that instantly must die. (iv. iv. 50) 

This is important. In one sense, Cressid does at this moment 
die for Troilus, as I shall show; but in another, we may say 
that it would have been well for her and Troilus if she had 
then, like Antony and Cleopatra, whose loves are also 
tossed tempestuously on the sea of time, they might enjoy 
a transcendent immortality in the time-vanquishing exper 
ience of death-in-love. The greater love-tragedy to come 
is foreshadowed. The tragic answer to the problem of this 
play is already implicit: and this is not the only instance 
where the difficulties of the problem plays are directly or 
indirectly answered by the great tragedies that follow them. 
And then Troilus watches Cressid 's inconstancy. He 
literally doubts his senses *the attest of eyes and ears' 
(v. ii. 1 19). He tells Ulysses that it was not Cressida they 
have been watching. And then he breaks out passionately 
into a speech which tries in vain to resolve the hopeless 
dualism in his mind : 

Troilus. This she? No, this is Liomed's Cressida; 
If beauty have a soul, this is not she; 
If seals guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies, 
If sanctimony be the gods* delight, 
If there be rule in unity itself, 



TROILUS .4.\D CRESSIDA 69 

This is not she. O madness of discourse, 

That cause sets up with and against itself! 

Bi-fold authority ! where reason can revolt 

Without perdition, and loss assume all reason 

Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressid. 

Within my soul there doth conduce a fight 

Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate 

Divides more wider than the sky and earth, 

And yet the spacious breadth of this division 

Admits no orifex for a point as subtle 

As Ariachne's broken woof to enter. (v. ii. r 34) 

'This is, and is not, Cressid.' The moral, or the problem, 
of this play. One has only to compare this speech with 
similar parts of Othello to see the peculiarly analytic and 
intellectual cast of the play's language. Othello may and does 
doubt Desdemona's faithlessness: but to question her iden 
tity with herself in solemn earnest he does do so once, 
purely ironically would seem an absurdity to him. But it 
is exactly this questioning of Cressida's identity with herself 
that we are concerned with here. Must Troilus deny his 
love-faith, and say, like Hamlet, 'I loved you not'? Or, if 
he is to stand by his faith in Cressid, must he deny the 
evidence of his eyes? He cannot love her faithless, yet hJ 
loves her the Cressida of his imagination still. He still 
holds fast to his love-vision : it is so deeply rooted in his soul, 
he may not, dare not, deny it. * Never did young man fancy 
with so eternal and so fixed a soul' (v. ii. 162). Are there two 
Cressids? One of yesterday, one of to-day ? That is, it seems, 
the nearest to a solution. 'Injurious time* 'calumniator 
time', 'that old common arbitrator time* has killed the 
former Cressid. Herein lies the tragedy of Troilus. He puts 
his faith in an immediately apprehended irrational or super- 
rational experience, and expects it to stand the test of time 
and reason. It does not do so. To Troilus, whose nature must 
keep faith with a supreme romantic value, there is now no 
4 rule in unity itself. Cressid, with a butterfly temperament 
flitting from one faith to another, is consistent. She lives 
emotionally. Thersites, the creature of satire and cynicism, 
is consistent: 

Lechery, lechery ; still, wars and lechery ; nothing else holds fashion : 

a burning devil take them ! (v. ii. 192) 



yo THE PHILOSOPHY OF 

He lives critically. But Troilus, who would champion to the 
uttermost throughout time with all his resources of reason 
and action his once plighted faith in a timeless experience, 
who would never 'turn back the silks upon the merchant 7 
(n. ii. 69), is wrenched torturingly by the tug of two diverg 
ing principles. There is now only one hope for Troilus if he 
is to keep his sanity intact. In the play we have seen him 
recognize two values : love, and the honour of Priam's cause 
in war; the same two realities which Thersites curses 'wars 
and lechery*. At the opening of the play we saw Troilus 1 
love drive out his warriorship : now he transfers his allegiance 
back to his other value, and passionately throws himself, 
body and soul, into the war. In the final scenes he fights 
like one possessed : 

I do not speak of flight, of fear, of death, 

But dare all imminence that gods and men 

Address their dangers in. (v. x. 12) 

He, compact of simplicity and faith and valour, makes the 
whole host of decadent and absurd Greeks the symbols of 
his mortal fury. Now, to avenge the knightly and courteous 
Hector, he launches the cataracts of his hate against Achilles : 

You vile abominable tents, 
Thus proudly pight upon our Phrygian plains, 
let Titan rise as early as he dare, 

I'll through and through you ! and, thou great-sized coward, 
No space of earth shall sunder our two hates : 
Til haunt thee like a wicked conscience still, 
That mouldeth goblins swift as frenzy's thoughts. (v. x. 23) 

This dynamic and positive passion of Troilus is not under 
stood in all its power, purpose, and direction, till we have 
a clear sight of all that is involved here in the opposition 
of the Greeks and Troy: Troilus champions, not only Troy, 
but the fine values of humanity, fighting against the demon 
powers of cynicism, 

The universe of this play is one of love and war. The most 
nauseating person in the play exposes the futility and 
stupidity of these activities so ardently and irrationally 
pursued by mankind: but the beautiful and the heroic are 
bound to the fiery wheel of these tormenting calls on their 
instinctive allegiance. So curiously in Troilus and Cressida 



TROILUS AND CRESSIDA 71 

are intertwined the profitless and ugly event with the aspiring 
and noble endeavour: here we see the infinite cruelly made 
'slave to limit' ; it is a world of incommensurables, a world 
of gleaming beauties, and ardent, fiery desires, pitted against 
the cynic snarl of Thersites, the stupidity of Ajax, and the 
cold reason of Ulysses. Above all, it is a world of value and 
vision ruled by murderous and senseless time, who, ignorant 
and inexorable, pursues his endless course of destruction 
and slavery, cramming up his rich thievery, 'he knows not 
how'. The less noble and beautiful seem to win. Time slays 
the love of Cressid. Hector, symbol of knighthood and 
generosity, is slain by Achilles, lumbering giant of egotism, 
lasciviousness, and pride : but all the fires of human nobility 
and romance yet light Troilus to the last. 

In emphasizing the intellectual quality of Troilus and 
Cressida I have implied no adverse criticism of its poetry. 
Its poetry is exquisite. Metaphysical poetry is not necessarily 
the less poetry for being metaphysical. And it is too common 
an error to allot definite provinces of the mind to the rainbow 
colours of prose and poetry, science, philosophy, and reli 
gious mysticism. The human mind is capable of an infinity 
of varying states of consciousness, merging into one another, 
some of which demand and some exclude the separate 
mechanisms of logic, of imagery, of music; and there are 
border-states where it is impossible to distinguish clearly 
one faculty from another. Troilus and Cressida induces and 
appeals to a consciousness of sensitive poetic activity which 
is yet not independent of the forms of abstract conceptual 
thought nor of the close reasoning of the philosopher. It : is^ 
in Jftctj.-.fl-n in^^r* of a philosophical argument, perfectly 
bodied into poetry and the forms and fictional incidents of 
drama. Itself analytic, it lends itself easily to philosophic 
analysis and interpretation. In nojplay of Shakespeare is 
there a more powerful unity oFTd: ffiTOugJmuiTrvt?us and 
Cressida we meet "tie same dualism at issue. The dramatic 
compression is remarkable. There is no waste. The texture 
of personification, incident, argument, and analysis is close- 
woven. Envenomed cynicism, with its food, ignorant 
stupidity, are thrown into relation with the profound philo 
sophy of the Greek leaders: both contrast with the romantic 



72 THE PHILOSOPHY OF TR01LUS AXD CRESSIDA 

chivalry of Troy and the humour of Pandarus. The symbolic 
setting for the main theme is, indeedj masterly. Two views 
of human life are pitted against each other in the opposing 
armies, and in the continual and lengthy discussions. Always 
we find it to be fundamentally the same dualism of (i) imme 
diate and personal experience, intuition, the infinite, the 
timeless; and (ii) the concepts of order and social system, 
intellect, the finite world, the time-concept. Between these 
two modes the consciousness of Troilus is wrenched, divided. 
There is no rule in unity itself. 



IV 

MEASURE FOR MEASURE AND THE 
GOSPELS 

IN Measure for Measure we have a careful dramatic pattern, 
a studied explication of a central theme: the moral nature 
of man in relation to the crudity of man's justice, especially 
in the matter of sexual vice. There is, too, a clear relation 
existing between the play and the Gospels, for the play's 
theme is this : 

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye 
shall be judged : and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to 
you again. (Matthew, vii. i) 

The ethical standards of the Gospels are rooted in the 
thought of Measure for Measure. Therefore, in this analysis 
we shall, while fixing attention primarily on the play, yet 
inevitably find a reference to the New Testament continually 
helpful, and sometimes essential. 

Measure for Measure is a carefully constructed work. Not 
until we view it as a deliberate artistic pattern of certain pivot 
ideas determining the play's action throughout shall we 
understand its peculiar nature. Though there is consummate 
psychological insight here and at least one person of most 
vivid and poignant human interest, we must first have regard 
to the central theme, and only second look for exact veri 
similitude to ordinary processes of behaviour. We must be 
careful not to let our human interest in any one person 
distort our single vision of the whole pattern. The play tends 
towards allegory or symbolism. The poet elects to risk a 
certain stiffness, or arbitrariness, in the directing of his plot 
rather than fail to express dramatically, with variety and 
precision, the full content of his basic thought. Any stiffness 
in the matter of human probability is, however, more than 
balanced by its extreme fecundity and compacted significance 
of dramatic symbolism. The persons or the play tend to 
illustrate certain human qualities chosen with careful refe- 

73 



74 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

rence to the main theme. Thus Isabella stands for sainted 
purity, Angelo for Pharisaical righteousness, the Duke for 
a psychologically sound and enlightened ethic. Lucio repre 
sents indecent wit, Pompey and Mistress Overdone pro 
fessional immorality. Barnadine is hard-headed, criminal, 
insensitiveness. Each person illumines some facet of the 
central theme: man's moral nature. The Clay's attention is 
confined chiefly to sexual ethics : which in isolation is natur 
ally the most pregnant of analysis and the most universal 
of all themes. No other subject provides so clear a contrast 
between human consciousness and human instinct; so rigid 
a distinction between the civilized and the natural qualities 
of man; so amazing, yet so slight, a boundary set in the 
public mind between the foully bestial and the ideally divine 
in humanity. The atmosphere, purpose, and meaning of the 
play are throughout ethical The Duke, lord of this play in 
the exact sense that Prospero is lord of The Tempest, is the 
prophet of an enlightened ethic. He controls the action from 
start to finish, he allots, as it were, praise and blame, he is 
lit at moments with divine suggestion comparable with his 
almost divine power of fore-knowledge, and control, and 
wisdom. There is an enigmatic, other-worldly, mystery 
suffusing his figure and the meaning of his acts : their results, 
however, in each case justify their initiation; wherein we 
see the allegorical nature of the play, since the plot is so 
arranged that each person receives his deserts in the light 
of the Duke's which is really the Gospel ethic. 

The poetic atmosphere is one of religion and critical 
morality. The religious colouring is orthodox, as in Hamlet. 
Isabella is a novice among *the votarists of St. Clare* (i. iv. 5) ; 
the Duke disguises himself as a Friar, exercising the divine 
privileges of his office towards Juliet, Barnadine, Claudio, 
Pompey. We hear of 'the consecrated fount a league below 
the city' (iv. iii. 106). The thought of death's eternal 
damnation, which is prominent in Hamlet^ recurs in Claudio's 
speech: 

Ay, but to die and go we know not where ; 
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; 
Tiiis sensible warm motion to become 
A kneaded clod ; and the delighted spirit 



AND THE GOSPELS 75 

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice ; 

To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, 

And blown with restless violence round about 

The pendant world ; or to be worse than worst 

Of those that kwless and incertain thoughts 

Imagine howling : 'tis too horrible ! 

The weariest and most loathed worldly life 

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment 

Can ky on nature is a paradise 

To what we fear in death. (in. i. 1 16) 

So powerful can orthodox eschatology be in Measure for 
Measure i it is not, as I shall show, all-powerful. Nor is the 
play primarily a play of death-philosophy: its theme is rather 
that of the Gospel ethic. And there is no more beautiful 
passage in all Shakespeare on the Christian redemption than 
Isabella's lines to Angelo: 

Alas! Alasi 

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once; 
And He, that might the vantage best have took, 
Found out the remedy. How would you be, 
If He which is the top of judgement, should 
But judge you as you are? O, think on that; 
And mercy then will breathe within your lips, 
Like man new made. (n. ii. 72) 

This is the natural sequence to Isabella's earlier lines: 

Well, believe this, 

No ceremony that to great ones 'longs, 
Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword, 
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe, 
Become them with one half so good a grace 
As mercy does. (n. ii. 58) 

These thoughts are a repetition of those in Portia's famous 
'mercy' speech. There they come as a sudden, gleaming, 
almost irrelevant beam of the ethical imagination. But here 
they are not irrelevant: they are intrinsic with the thought 
of the whole play, the pivot of its movement. In The Merchant 
of Venice the Gospel reference is explicit: 

. . . We do pray for mercy; 
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render 
The deeds of mercy. (iv. i. 200) 



76 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

And the central idea of Measure for Measure is this: 

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, (Matthew, vi, 1 2) 
Thus 'justice* is a mockery: man, himself a sinner, cannot 
presume to judge. That is the lesson driven home in Measure 

for Measure. 

The atmosphere of Christianity pervading the play merges 
into the purely ethical suggestion implicit in the inter- 
criticism of all the persons. Though the Christian ethic be 
the central theme, there is a wider setting of varied ethical 
thought, voiced by each person in turn, high or low. The 
Duke, Angelo, and Isabella are clearly obsessed with such 
ideas and criticize freely in their different fashions. So also 
Elbow and the officers bring in Froth and Pompey, accusing 
them. Abhorson is severely critical of Pompey: 

A bawd? Fie upon him! He will discredit our mystery. 

(iv. ii. 29) 

Lucio traduces the Duke's character, Mistress Overdone 
informs against Lucio. Barnadine is universally despised. 
All, that is, react to each other in an essentially ethical mode : 
which mode is the peculiar and particular vision of this play. 
Even music is brought to the bar of the ethical judgement: 

. . . music oft hath such a charm 
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm. (iv. i. 16) 

Such is the dominating atmosphere of this play. Out of it 
grow the main themes, the problem and the lesson of Measure 
for Measure. There is thus a pervading atmosphere of ortho 
doxy and ethical criticism, in which is centred the mysterious 
holiness, the profound death-philosophy, the enlightened 
human insight and Christian ethic of the protagonist, the 
Duke of Vienna. 

The satire of the play is directed primarily against self- 
conscious, self-protected righteousness. The Duke starts 
the action by resigning his power to Angelo. He addresses 
Angelo, outspoken in praise of his virtues, thus : 

Angelo, 

There is a kind of character in thy life, 
That to the observer doth thy history 
Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings 
Are not thine own so proper, as to waste 
Thyself upon thy virtue, they on thcc. 



AND THE GOSPELS 77 

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do ; 

Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues 

Did not go forth of us, *twere all alike 

As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch'd, 

But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends 

The smallest scruple of her excellence, 

But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines 

Herself the glory of a creditor, 

Both thanks and use, (i. i. 27) 

The thought is similar to that of the Sermon on the Mount: 

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle 
stick ; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 

(Matthew, v. 14) 

Not only does the Duke's *torch' metaphor clearly recall 
this passage, but his development of it is vividly paralleled 
by other of Jesus' words. The Duke compares 'Nature' to 
*a creditor 1 , lending qualities and demanding both 'thanks 
and use 1 . Compare : 

For the Kingdom of Heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, 
who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. 

And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; 
to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his 
journey. (Matthew, irv. 14) 

The sequel needs no quotation. Now, though Angelo 
modestly refuses the honour, the Duke insists, forcing it on 
him. Later, in conversation with Friar Thomas, himself dis 
guised as a Friar now, he gives us reason for his strange act: 

We have strict statutes and most biting laws, 

The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds, 

Which for this nineteen years we have let slip ; 

Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave, 

That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers, 

Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch, 

Only to stick it in their children's sight 

For terror, not to use, in time the rod 

Becomes more mock'd than fear'd; so our decrees, 

Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead ; 

And liberty plucks justice by the nose; 

The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart 

Goes all decorum. (i. Hi. 19) 

Therefore he has given Angelo power and command to 
'strike home*. Himself he will not exact justice, since he has 



78 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

already, by his laxity, as good as bade the people sin by his 
'permissive pass': the people could not readily understand 
such a change in himself with a new governor it would be 
different. But these are not his only reasons. He ends: 

Moe reasons for this action 
At our more leisure shall I render you ; 
Only, this one : Lord Angelo is precise ; 
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses 
That his blood flows, or that his appetite 
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see 
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (i. iii. 48) 

The rest of the play slowly unfolds the rich content of the 
Duke's plan, and the secret, too, of his lax rule. 
Escalus tells us that the Duke was 

One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself. 

(in. ii. 252) 

But he has studied others, besides himself. He prides himself 
on his knowledge: 

There is written in your brow, provost, honesty and constancy : if I read 
it not truly, my ancient skill beguiles me ... (iv. ii, 161) 

Herein are the causes of his leniency. His government 
has been inefficient, not through an inherent weakness or 
laxity in him, but rather because meditation and self- 
analysis, together with profound study of human nature, 
have shown him that all passions and sins of other men have 
reflected images in his own soul. He is no weakling: he has 
been 'a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier 1 (in. ii. 158). But 
to such a philosopher government and justice may begin to 
appear a mockery, and become abhorrent. His judicial 
method has been original : all criminals were either executed 
promptly or else freely released (iv. ii. 136-9). Nowhere is 
the peculiar modernity of the Duke in point of advanced 
psychology more vividly apparent. It seems, too, if we are 
to judge by his treatment of Barnadine (iv. iii. 7188), that 
he could not tolerate an execution without the criminal's own 
approval! The case of Barnadine troubles him intensely: 

A creature unprepared, unmeet for death; 

And to transport him in the mind he is 

Were damnable. iv. iii. 74) 



AND THE GOSPELS 79 

The Duke's sense of human responsibility is delightful 
throughout: he is like a kindly father, and all the rest are 
his children. Thus he now performs the experiment of 
handing the reins of government to a man of ascetic purity 
who has an hitherto invulnerable faith in the Tightness and 
justice of his own ideals a man of spotless reputation and 
self-conscious integrity, who will have no fears as to the 
'justice' of enforcing precise obedience. The scheme is a 
plot, or trap: a scientific experiment to see if extreme ascetic 
righteousness can stand the test of power. 

The Duke, disguised as the Friar, moves through the play, 
a dark figure, directing, watching, moralizing on the actions 
of the other persons. As the play progresses and his plot 
on Angelo works he assumes an ever-increasing mysterious 
dignity, his original purpose seems to become more and 
more profound in human insight, the action marches with 
measured pace to its appointed and logical end. We have 
ceased altogether to think of the Duke as merely a studious 
and unpractical governor, incapable of office. Rather he 
holds, within the dramatic universe, the dignity and power 
of a Prospero, to whom he is strangely similar. With both, 
their plot and plan is the plot and plan of the play: they 
make and forge the play, and thus are automatically to be 
equated in a unique sense with the poet himself since both 
are symbols of the poet's controlling, purposeful, combined, 
movement of the chess-men of the drama. Like Prospero, 
the Duke tends to assume proportions evidently divine. 
Once he is actually compared to the Supreme Power: 

O my dread lord, 

I should be guilder than my guiltiness, 
To think 1 can be undiscemible, 
When I perceive your grace, like power divine, 
Hath look'd upon my passes. (v. i. 367) 

So speaks Angelo at the end. We are prepared for it long 
before. In the rhymed octosyllabic couplets of the Duke's 
soliloquy in in. ii. there is a distinct note of supernatural 
authority, forecasting the rhymed mystic utterances of divine 
beings in the Final Plays. He has been talking with Escalus 
and the Provost, and dismisses them with the words: 

Peace be with you ! 



8O MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

They leave him and he soliloquizes: 

He who the sword of Heaven will bear 

Should be as holy as severe ; 

Pattern in himself to know 

Grace to stand and virtue go; 

More nor less to other paying 

Than by self-ounces weighing. 

Shame to him whose cruel striking 

Kills for feu Its of his own liking ! 

Twice treble shame on Angelo, 

To weed my vice and let his grow ! 

O what may man within him hide, 

Though angel on the outward side! 

How may likeness made in crimes, 

Making practice on the times, 

To draw with idle spiders' strings 

Most ponderous and substantial things ! 

Craft against vice I must apply : 

With Angelo to-night shall lie 

His old betrothed but despised ; 

So disguise shall, by the disguised, 

Pay with falsehood false exacting, 

And perform an old contracting. (in. ii. 283) 

This fine soliloquy gives us the Duke's philosophy: the 
philosophy that prompted his original plan. And it is impor 
tant to notice the mystical, prophetic tone of the speech. 

The Duke, like Jesus, is the prophet of a new order of 
ethics. This aspect of the Duke as teacher and prophet is 
also illustrated by his cryptic utterance to Escalus just before 
this soliloquy; 

Escatus. Good even, good father. 

Duke. Bliss and goodness on you. 

Escalus. Of whence are you? 

Duke. Not of this country, though my chance is now 
To use it for my time : I am a brother 
Of gracious order, late come from the See 
In special business from his Holiness. 

Es fa/us. What news abroad i' the world? 

Duke. None, but that there is so great a fever on goodness, that the dis 
solution of it must cure it : novelty is only in request ; and it is as dangerous 
to be aged in any kind of course, as it is virtuous to be constant in any 
undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure ; 
but security enough to make fellowships accurst : much upon this riddle 
runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every 
day's news. I pray you, sir, of w hat disposition was the Duke? 



AND THE GOSPELS 8l 

Escalus. One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know 
himself. (in. ii. 233) 

This remarkable speech, with its deliberate, incisive, cryptic 
sentences, has a profound quality and purpose which reaches 
the very heart of the play. It deserves exact attention. Its 
expanded paraphrase runs thus: 

No news, but that goodness is suffering such a disease that a complete 
dissolution of it (goodness) is needed to cure it. That is, our whole 
system of conventional ethics should be destroyed and rebuilt. A change 
(novelty) never gets beyond request, that is, is never actually put in 
practice. And it is as dangerous to continue indefinitely a worn-out 
system or order jof government, as it is praiseworthy to be constant in 
any individual undertaking. There is scarcely enough knowledge of 
human nature current in the world to make societies safe; but ignorant 
self-confidence (i.e. in matters of justice) enough to make human inter 
course within a society a miserable thing. This riddle holds the key to 
the wisdom of the world (probably, both the false wisdom of the unen 
lightened, and the true wisdom of great teachers). This news is old 
enough, and yet the need for its understanding sees daily proof. 

I paraphrase freely, admittedly interpreting difficulties in 
the light of the recurring philosophy of this play on the 
blindness of men's moral judgements, and especially in the 
light of the Duke's personal moral attitude as read from his 
other words and actions. This speech holds the poetry of 
ethics. Its content, too, is very close to the Gospel teaching, 
the insistence on the blindness of the world, its habitual 
disregard of the truth exposed by prophet and teacher: 

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and 
men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 

(John, iii. 19) 

The same almost divine suggestion rings in many of the 
Duke's measured prose utterances. There are his supremely 
beautiful words to Escalus (iv. ii. 219): 

Look, the unfolding star calls up the shepherd. Put not yourself into 
amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy 
when they are known. 

The first lovely sentence a unique beauty of Shakespearian 
prose, in a style peculiar to this play derives part of its 
appeal from New Testament associations, and the second 
sentence holds the mystic assurance of Matthew, x. 2 6 : 

... for there is nothing covered, that sliall not be revealed ; and hid, 
that shall not be known. 



g2 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

The Duke exercises the authority of a teacher throughout 
his disguise as a friar. He speaks authoritatively on repen 
tance to Juliet: 

Dttkf. ... hot lest you do repent. 

As that the sin hath brought you to this shame, 

Which sorrow always towards ourselves, not Heaven, 

Showing we would not spare Heaven as we love it, 

But as we stand in fear 
Juliet. I do repent me as it is an evil, 

And take the shame with joy. 

Duke. There rest ... ( & 3) 

After rebuking Pompey the bawd very sternly but not 
unkindly, he concludes: 

Go mend, go mend. (m. ii. 28) 

His attitude is that of Jesus to the woman taken in adultery: 

Neither do I condemn thee : go, and sin no more. (John, viii. 1 1) 

Both are more kindly disposed towards honest impurity than 
light and frivolous scandal-mongers, such as Lucio, or 
Pharisaic self-righteousness such as Angelo's. 

The Duke's ethical attitude is exactly correspondent with 
Jesus': the play must be read in the light of the Gospel 
teaching, if its full significance is to be apparent. So he, 
like Jesus, moves among men suffering grief at their sins 
and deriving joy from an unexpected flower of simple good 
ness in the deserts of impurity and hardness. He finds soft 
ness of heart where he least expects it in the Provost of 
the prison : 

Duke. This is a gentle provost : seldom when 

The steeled gaoler is the friend of men. (iv. ii. 89) 

So, too, Jesus finds in the centurion, 

a man under authority, having soldiers under me ... 

(Matthew, viii. 9) 
a simple faith where he least expects it: 

... I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 

The two incidents are very similar in quality. Now, in that 
he represents a perfected ethical philosophy joined to 
supreme authority, the Duke is, within the dramatic universe, 
automatically comparable with Divinity; or we may suggest 
that he progresses by successive modes, from worldly power 



AND THE GOSPELS 83 

through the prophecy and moralizing of the middle scenes, 
to the supreme judgement at the end, where he exactly 
reflects the universal judgement as suggested by many 
Gospel passages. There is the same apparent injustice, the 
same tolerance and mercy. The Duke is, in fact, a symbol of 
the same kind as the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal 
Son (Luke xv) or the Lord in that of the Unmerciful 
Servant (Matthew xviii). The simplest way to focus correctly 
the quality and unity of Measure for Measure is to read it on 
the analogy of Jesus' parables. 

Though his ethical philosophy is so closely related to the 
Gospel teaching, yet the Duke's thoughts on death are 
devoid of any explicit belief in immortality. He addresses 
Claudio, who is to die, and his words at first appear vague, 
agnostic : but a deeper acquaintance renders their profundity 
and truth. Claudio fears death. The Duke comforts him by 
concentrating not on death, but on life. In a series of preg 
nant sentences he asserts the negative nature of any single 
life-joy. First, life is slave to death and may fail at any 
chance moment; however much you run from death, yet you 
cannot but run still towards it; nobility in man is inextri 
cably twined with *baseness* (this is, indeed, the moral of 
Measure for Measure), and courage is ever subject to fear; 
sleep is man's 'best rest', yet he fears death which is but 
sleep; man is not a single independent unit, he has no soli 
tary self to lose, but rather is compounded of universal 
Must* ; he is always discontent, striving for what he has not, 
forgetful of that which he succeeds in winning; man is a 
changing, wavering substance; his riches he wearily carries 
till death unloads him; he is tortured by disease and old age. 
The catalogue is strong in unremittent condemnation of life: 

Thou hast nor youth nor age, 
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep, 
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth 
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms 
Of palsied eld ; and when thou art old and rich, 
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty, 
To make thy riches pleasant. What *s yet in this 
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life 
Lie hid moe thousand deaths : yet death we fear, 
That makes these odds all even. (in. i- 32) 



3 4 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

Life is therefore a sequence of unrealities, strung together in 
a time-succession. Everything it can give is in turn killed. 
Regarded thus, it is unreal, a delusion, a living death. Ine 
thought is profound. True, the Duke has concentrated 
especially on the temporal aspect of life's appearances, 
regarding only the shell of life and neglecting the inner vital 
principle of joy and hope; he has left deeper things un 
touched He neglects love and all immediate transcendent 
intuitions. But since it is only this temporal aspect of decayed 
appearances which death is known to end, since it is only the 
closing of this very time-succession which Claudio fears, it 
is enough to prove this succession valueless. Claudio is thus 
comforted. The death of such a life is indeed not death, but 
rather itself a kind of life: 

I humbly thank you. 

To sue to live, I find I seek to die; / \ 

And seeking death, find life : let it come on. (m. 1- 40 

Now he 'will encounter darkness as a bride 1 , like Antony 
(in. i. 82). The Duke's death-philosophy is thus the philo 
sophy of the great tragedies to follow ofTimon oj Athens, of 
Antony and Cleopatra. So, too, his ethic is the ethic of King 
Lear. In this problem play we find the profound thought of 
the supreme tragedies already emergent and given careful 
and exact form, the Duke in this respect being analogous to 
Agamemnon in TroSus and Cressida. Both his ethical and his 
death thinking are profoundly modern. But Claudio soon 
reverts to the crude time-thinking (and fine poetry) of his 
famous death-speech, in which he regards the after-life in 
terms of orthodox eschatology, thinking of it as a temporal 
process, like Hamlet: 

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where . . . (in. i- 1 16) 

In the Shakespearian mode of progressive thought it is 
essential first to feel death's reality strongly as the ender of 
what we call life': only then do we begin to feel the tre 
mendous pressure of an immortality not known in terms of 
time. We then begin to attach a different meaning to the 
words 'life' and 'death*. The thought of this scene thus 
wavers between the old and the new death-philosophies. 



AND THE GOSPELS 85 

The Duke's plot pivots on the testing of Angelo. Angelo 
is a man of spotless reputation, generally respected. Escalus 
says 

If any in Vienna be of worth 

To undergo such ample grace and honour, 

It is Lord Angelo. (i. i. 22) 

Angelo, hearing the Duke's praise, and his proposed trust, 
modestly declines, as though he recognizes that his virtue is 
too purely idealistic for the rough practice of state affairs: 

Now, good my lord, 

Let there be some more test made of my metal, 
Before so noble and so great a figure 
Be stain p'd upon it. (i. i. 47) 

Angelo is not a conscious hypocrite: rather a man whose 
chief faults are self-deception and pride in his own righteous 
ness an unused and delicate instrument quite useless under 
the test of active trial. This he half-recognizes, and would 
first refuse the proffered honour. The Duke insists : Angelo's 
fall is thus entirely the Duke's responsibility. So this man of 
ascetic life is forced into authority. He is 

a man whose blood 

Is very snow-broth ; one who never feels 
The wanton stings and motions of the sense, 
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge 
With profits of the mind, study and fast. (i. iv. 57) 

Angelo, indeed, does not know himself: no one receives so 
great a shock as he himself when temptation overthrows his 
virtue. He is no hypocrite. He cannot, however, be acquitted 
of Pharisaical pride: his reputation means much to him, he 
'stands at a guard with envy' (i. iii. 51). He 'takes pride' 
in his 'gravity' (n. iv. 10), Now, when he is first faced with 
the problem of Claudio's guilt of adultery and commanded, 
we must presume, by the Duke's sealed orders to execute 
stern punishment wholesale, for this is the Duke's ostensible 
purpose Angelo pursues his course without any sense of 
wrongdoing. Escalus hints that surely all men must know 
sexual desire how then is Angelo's procedure just? Escalus 
thus adopts the Duke's ethical point of view, exactly: 

Let but your honour know 
(Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue), 



86 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

That, in the working of your own affections, 

Had time cohered with pkce, or place with wishing, 

Or that the resolute acting of your blood 

Could have attained the effect of your own purpose, 

Whether you had not, some time in your life, 

Err'd in this point, which now you censure him, 

And pulTd the law upon you. 

Which reflects the Gospel message: 

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not 
commit adultery : 

But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after 
her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 

(Matthew, v. 27) 

Angelo's reply, however, is sound sense : 

*Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, 
Another thing to fall. (n. t. 17) 

Isabella later uses the same argument as Escalus : 

... Go to your bosom ; 

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know 
That *s like my brother's fault : if it confess 
A natural guiltiness, such as is his, 
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue 
Against my brother's life. (n. ii. 1 36) 

We are reminded of Jesus' words to the Scribes and Pharisees 
concerning the woman *taken in adultery' : 

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 

(John, viii. 7) 

Angelo is, however, sincere: terribly sincere. He feels no 
personal responsibility, since he is certain that he does right. 
We believe him when he tells Isabella: 

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother : 
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, 
It should be thus with him. (n. ii. 80) 

To execute justice, he says, is kindness, not cruelty, in the 
long run. 

Angelo *s arguments are rationally conclusive. A thing 
irrational breaks them, however: his passion for Isabella. 
Her purity, her idealism, her sanctity enslave him she who 
speaks to him of 



AND THE GOSPELS 87 

true prayers 

That shall be up at heaven and enter there 
Ere sun-rise, prayers from preserved souls, 
From fasting maids whose minds are dedicate 
To nothing temporal. (n. ii. 151) 

Angelo is swiftly enwrapped in desire. He is finely shown as 
falling a prey to his own love of purity and asceticism : 

What is't I dream on? 
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, 
With saints dost bait thy hook I (n. ii. 179) 

He *sins in loving virtue* ; no strumpet could ever allure him ; 
Isabella subdues him utterly. Now he who built so strongly 
on a rational righteousness, understands for the first time the 
sweet unreason of love : 

Ever till now, 
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how. 

(ii. ii. 186) 

Angelo struggles hard: he prays to Heaven, but his thoughts 
*anchor* on Isabel (n. iv. 4). His gravity and learning all 
are suddenly as nothing. He admits to himself that he has 
taken * pride' in his well-known austerity, adding Met no man 
hear me' a pathetic touch which casts a revealing light 
both on his shallow ethic and his honest desire at this moment 
to understand himself. The violent struggle is short. He 
surrenders, his ideals all toppled over like ninepins: 

Blood, thou art blood : 
Let's write good angel on the Devil's horn, 
Tis not the Devil's crest. (n. iv. 15) 

Angelo is now quite adrift: all his old contacts are irrevocably 
severed. Sexual desire has long been anathema to him, so his 
warped idealism forbids any healthy love. Good and evil 
change places in his mind, since this passion is immediately 
recognized as good, yet, by every one of his stock judgements, 
condemned as evil. The Devil becomes a 'good angel 1 . And 
this wholesale reversion leaves Angelo in sorry plight now: 
he has no moral values left. Since sex has been synonymous 
with foulness in his mind, this new love, reft from the start 
of moral sanction in a man who *scarce confesses that his 



88 MEASVRE tOR MEASURE 

blood flows', becomes swiftly a devouring and curbless lust: 

I have begun, 
And now I give my sensual race tHe rein. (n. iv. 160) 

So he addresses Isabella. He imposes the vile condition of 
Claudio's life. All this is profoundly true: he is at a loss with 
this new reality embarrassed as it were, incapable of 
pursuing a normal course of love. In proportion as his moral 
reason formerly denied his instincts, so now his instincts 
assert themselves in utter callousness of his moral reason. He 
swiftly becomes an utter scoundrel. He threatens to have 
Claudio tortured. Next, thinking to have had his way with 
Isabella, he is so conscience-stricken and tortured by fear that 
he madly resolves not to keep faith with her: he orders 
Claudio's instant execution. For, in proportion as he is 
nauseated at his own crimes, he is terror-struck at exposure. 
He is mad with fear, his story exactly pursues the Macbeth 
rhythm : 

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant 

And dull to all proceedings. A deflower *d maid ! 

And by an eminent body that enforced 

The law against it! But that her tender shame 

Will not proclaim against her maiden loss, 

How might she tongue me ! Yet reason dares her no; 

For my authority bears so credent bulk, 

That no particular scandal once can touch 

But it confounds the breather. He should have lived, 

Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense, 

Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge, 

By so receiving a dishonoured life 

With ransome of such shame. Would yet he had lived J 

Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, 

Nothing goes right : we would, and we would not. 

(iv. iv. 23) 

This is the reward of self-deception, of pharisaical pride, of 
an idealism not harmonized with instinct of trying, to use 
the Duke's pregnant phrase: 

To draw with idle spiders' strings 

Most ponderous and substantial things. (m. ii. 297) 

Angelo has not been overcome with evil. He has been en 
snared by good, by his own love of sanctity, exquisitely 



AND THE GOSPELS 89 

symbolized in his love of Isabella: the hook is baited with a 
saint, and the saint is caught. The cause of his fall is this 
and this only. The coin of his moral purity, which flashed so 
brilliantly, when tested does not ring true. Angelo is the 
symbol of a false intellectualized ethic divorced from the 
deeper springs of human instinct. 

The varied close-inwoven themes of Measure jor Measure 
are finally knit in the exquisite final act. To that point the 
action reflected image always of the Ducal plot marches 

By cold gradation and well-balanced form. (iv, iii. 108) 

The last act of judgement is heralded by trumpet calls: 

Twice have the trumpets sounded; 
The generous and gravest citizens 
Have hent the gates, and very near upon 
The Duke is entering. (iv. vi. 12) 

So all are, as it were, summoned to the final judgement. Now 1 
Angelo, Isabella, Lucio all are understood most clearly in 
the light of this scene. The last act is the key to the play's 
meaning, and all difficulties are here resolved. I shall observe 
the judgement measured to each, noting retrospectively the 
especial significance in the play of Lucio and Isabella. 

Lucio is a typical loose-minded, vulgar wit. He is the 
product of a society that has gone too far in condemnation 
of human sexual desires. He keeps up a running comment 
on sexual matters. His very existence is a condemnation of 
the society which makes him a possibility. Not that there is 
anything of premeditated villainy in him : he is merely super 
ficial, enjoying the unnatural ban on sex which civilization 
imposes, because that very ban adds point and spice to 
sexual gratification, He is, however, sincerely concerned 
about Claudio, and urges Isabella to plead for him. He can 
be serious for a while. He can speak sound sense, too, in 
the full flow of his vulgar wit : 

Yes, in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred ; it is well allied : but 
it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put 
down. They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after this 
downright way of creation : is it true, think you? (HI. ii. no) 

This goes to the root of our problem here. Pompey has 
voiced the same thought (n. i, 248-63). This is, indeed, what 



90 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

the Duke has known too well : what Angelo and Isabella do 
not know. Thus Pompey and Lucio here at least tell down 
right facts Angelo and Isabella pursue impossible and 
valueless ideals. Only the Duke holds the balance exact 
throughout. Lucio *s running wit, however, pays no con 
sistent regard to truth. To him the Duke's leniency was a sign 
of hidden immorality: 

Ere he would have hanged a man for getting a hundred bastards, he 
would have paid for the nursing of a thousand : he had some feeling of 
the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy. 

(m. ii. 126) 

He traduces the Duke's character wholesale. He does not 
pause to consider the truth of his words. Again, there is no 
intent to harm merely a careless, shallow, truthless wit- 
philosophy which enjoys its own sex-chatter. The type is 
common. Lucio is refined and vulgar, and the more vulgar 
because of his refinement; whereas Pompey, because of his 
natural coarseness, is less vulgar. Lucio can only exist in a 
society of smug propriety and self-deception : for his mind's 
life is entirely parasitical on those insincerities. His false 
because fantastic and shallow pursuit of sex, is the result 
of a false, fantastic, denial of sex in his world. Like so much 
in Measure for Measure he is eminently modern. Now Lucio 
is the one person the Duke finds it all but impossible ,to 
forgive : 

I find an apt remission in myself; 

And yet here J s one in place I cannot pardon. (v, i. 499) 

All the rest have been serious in their faults. Lucio's con 
demnation is his triviality, his insincerity, his profligate 
idleness, his thoughtless detraction of others' characters: 

You, sirrah, that knew me for a fool, a coward, 

One all of luxury, an ass, a madman ; 

Wherein have I so deserved of you, 

That you extol me thus? (v. i. 501) 

Lucio's treatment at the close is eminently, and fittingly, 
undignified. He is threatened thus: first he is to marry the 
mother of his child, about whose wrong he formerly boasted; 
then to be whipped and hanged. Lucio deserves some credit, 
however: he preserves his nature and answers with his 



AND THE GOSPELS 91 

characteristic wit. He cannot be serious. The Duke, his 
sense of humour touched, retracts the sentence : 

Duke. Upon mine honour, thou shalt marry her. 

Thy slanders I forgive; and therewithal 

Remit thy other forfeits. Take him to prison ; 

And see our pleasure herein executed. 
Lucio. Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and 

hanging. 
Duke. Slandering a prince deserves it. (v. i. 520) 

Idleness, triviality, thoughtlessness receive the Duke's 
strongest condemnation. The thought is this : 

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they 
shall give account thereof in the day of judgement. 

(Matthew xii. 36) 

Exactly what happens to Lucio. His wit is often illuminating, 
often amusing, sometimes rather disgusting. He is never 
wicked, sometimes almost lovable, but terribly dangerous. 1 
Isabella is the opposite extreme. She is more saintly than 
Angelo, and her saintliness goes deeper, is more potent than 
his. When we first meet her, she is about to enter the secluded 
life of a nun. She welcomes such a life. She even wishes 

a more strict restraint 
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare. (i. iv. 4) 

Even Lucio respects her. She calls forth something deeper 
than his usual wit: 

I would not though 'tis my familiar sin 

With maids to seem the lapwing and to jest, 

Tongue far from heart play with all virgins so : 

I hold you as a thing ensky'd and sainted, 

By your renouncement an immortal spirit, 

And to be talk'd with in sincerity, 

As with a saint. {* w. 31) 

Which contains a fine and exact statement of his shallow 
behaviour, his habitual wit for wit's sake. Lucio is throughout 
a loyal friend to Claudio: truer to his cause, in fact, than 
Isabella. A pointed contrast. He urges her to help. She shows 
a distressing lack of warmth. It is Lucio that talks of 'ycmr 1 
poor brother*. She is cold: 

* For Lucio, see also The Imperial Tkemt, p. zo. 



92 MEASURE FOR M2ASVRE 

Lucio, Assay the power you have. 

Isabella. My power? Alas, I doubt 
Lxcio. Our doubts are traitors 

And mate us lose the good we oft might win, 
By fearing to attempt. (i- iv. 76) 

Isabella's self-centred saintliness is thrown here into strong 
contrast with Lucio's manly anxiety for his friend. So, con 
trasted with Isabella's ice-cold sanctity, there are the 
beautiful lines with which Lucio introduces the matter to her: 

Your brother and his lover have embraced : 

As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time 

That from the seedness the bare fallow brings 

To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb 

Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. (i. iv. 40) 

Compare the pregnant beauty of this with the chastity of 
Isabella's recent lisping line: 

Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare. (i. iv.' 5) 

Isabella lacks human feeling. She starts her suit to Angelo 
poorly enough. She is luke-warm : 

There is a vice that most I do abhor, 

And most desire should meet the blow of justice; 

For which I would not plead but that I must; 

For which I must not plead, but that I am 

At war 'twixt will and will not. (n. ii, 29) 

Lucio has to urge her on continually. We begin to feel that 
Isabella has no real affection for Claudio; has stifled all 
human love in the pursuit of sanctity. When Angelo at last 
proposes his dishonourable condition she quickly comes to 
her decision : 

Then, Isabel, live chaste and, brother, die. 

More i-fraT* our brother is our chastity. (n. iv. 185) 

When Shakespeare chooses to load his dice like this which 
is seldom indeed he does it mercilessly. The Shakespearian 
satire here strikes once, and deep: there is no need to point 
it further. But now we know our Isabel. We are not surprised 
that she behaves to Claudio, who hints for her sacrifice, like 
* fiend: 

Take my defiance I 

Die, perish ! Might but my bending down 

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed: 

I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, 

No word to save thee. (in. i. 141) 



AND THE GOSPELS 93 

Is her fall any less than Angelo's? Deeper, I think. With 
whom is Isabel angry? Not only with her brother. She has 
feared this choice terribly: *O, I do fear thee, Claudio', 
she said (in. i. 72). Even since Angelo's suggestion she has 
been afraid. Now Claudio has forced the responsibility of 
choice on her. She cannot sacrifice herself. Her sex inhibi 
tions have been horribly shown her as they are, naked. She 
has been stung lanced on a sore spot of her soul. She knows 
now that it is not all saintliness, she sees her own soul and 
sees it as something small, frightened, despicable, too frail to 
dream of such a sacrifice. Though she does not admit it, she 
is infuriated not with Claudio, but with herself. 'Saints' 
should not speak like this. Again, the comment of this play 
is terribly illuminating. It is significant that she readily 
involves Mariana in illicit love: it is only her own chastity 
which assumes, in her heart, universal importance/ 1 

Isabella, however, was no hypocrite, any more than Angelo* 
She is a spirit of purity, grace, maiden charm: but all these 
virtues the action of the play turns remorselessly against 
herself. In a way, it is not her fault. Chastity is hardly a sin 
but neither, as the play emphasizes, is it the whole of 
virtue. And she, like the rest, has to find a new wisdom. 
Mariana in the last act prays for Angelo's life. Confronted 
by that warm, potent, forgiving, human love, Isabella herself 
suddenly shows a softening, a sweet humanity. Asked to 
intercede, she does so she, who was at the start slow to 
intercede for a brother's life, now implores the Duke to save 
Angelo, her wronger: 

I partly think 

A due sincerity governed his deeds, 
Till he did look on me. (v. i. 446) 

There is a suggestion that Angelo's strong passion has itself 
moved her, thawing her ice-cold pride. This is the moment 
of her trial : the Duke is watching her keenly, to see if she 
has learnt her lesson nor does he give her any help, but 
deliberately puts obstacles in her way. But she stands the 
test: she bows to a love greater than her own saintliness. 
Isabella, like Angelo, has progressed far during the play's 
action : from sanctity to humanity. 

1 X now doubt if Isabella's attitude to Mariana should be held against her (1955). 



94 MEASURE FOR MEASURE 

Angelo, at the beginning of this final scene, remains firm 
in denial of the accusations levelled against him. Not till the 
Duke's disguise as a friar is made known and he understands 
that deception is no longer possible, does he show outward 
repentance. We know, however, that his inward thoughts 
must have been terrible enough. His earlier agonized solilo 
quies put this beyond doubt. Now, his failings exposed, he 
seems to welcome punishment: 

Immediate sentence then and sequent death 

Is all the grace I beg. (v. i. 374) 

Escalus expresses sorrow and surprise at his actions. He 
answers : 

I am sorry that such sorrow I procure : 

And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart 

That I crave death more willingly than mercy; 

*Tis my deserving and I do entreat it. (v. i. 47 $) 

To Angelo, exposure seems to come as a relief: the horror 
of self-deception is at an end. For the first time in his life he 
is both quite honest with himself and with the world. So he 
takes Mariana as his wife. This is just: he threw her over 
because he thought she was not good enough for him, 

Partly for that her promised proportions 

Came short of composition, but in chief 

For that her reputation was disvalued 

In levity. (v. i. 213) 

He aimed too high when he cast his eyes on the sainted 
Isabel: now, knowing himself, he will find his true level in 
the love of Mariana. He has become human. The union is 
symbolical. Just as his supposed love-contact with Isabel 
was a delusion, when Mariana, his true mate, was taking her 
place, so Angelo throughout has deluded himself. Now his 
acceptance of Mariana symbolizes his new self-knowledge* 
So, too, Lucio is to find his proper level in marrying Mistress 
Kate Keepdown, of whose child he is the father. Horrified 
as he is at the thought, he has to meet the responsibilities of 
his profligate behaviour. The punishment of both is this 
only: to know, and to be, themselves. This is both their 
punishment and at the same time their highest reward for 
their sufferings : self-knowledge being the supreme, perhaps 



AND THE GOSPELS 95 

the only, good. We remember the parable of the Pharisee 
and the Publican (Luke xviii). 

So the Duke draws his plan to its appointed end. All, 
including Barnadine, are forgiven, and left, in the usual 
sense, unpunished. This is inevitable. The Duke's original 
leniency has been shown by his successful plot to have been 
right, not wrong. Though he sees 'corruption boil and 
bubble* (v. i. 316) in Vienna, he has found, too, that man's 
sainted virtue is a delusion : 'judge not that ye be not judged*. 
He has seen an Angelo to fall from grace at the first breath 
of power's temptation, he has seen Isabella's purity scarring, 
defacing her humanity. He has found more gentleness in 
'the steeled gaoler' than in either of these. He has found 
more natural honesty in Pompey the bawd than in Angelo 
the ascetic; more humanity in the charity of Mistress Over 
done than in Isabella condemning her brother to death 
with venomed words in order to preserve her own chastity. 
Mistress Overdone has looked after Lucio's illegitimate 
child: 

. . . Mistress Kate Keepdown was with child by him in the Date's time ; 
he promised her marriage; his child is a year and a quarter old, come 
Philip and Jacob : I have kept it myself . . . (HI. ii. 21 5) 

Human virtue does not flower only in high places : nor is it 
the monopoly of the pure in body. In reading Measure for 
Measure one feels that Pompey with his rough humour and 
honest professional indecency is the only one of the major 
persons, save the Duke, who can be called 'pure in heart'. 
Therefore, knowing all this, the Duke knows his tolerance 
to be now a moral imperative : he sees too far into the nature 
of man to pronounce judgement according to the appearances 
of human behaviour. But we are not told what will become of 
Vienna. There is, however, a hint, for the Duke is to marry 
Isabel, and this marriage, like the others, may be understood 
symbolically. It is to be the marriage of understanding with 
purity; of tolerance with moral fervour. The Duke, who 
alone has no delusions as to the virtues of man, who is 
incapable of executing justice on vice since he finds forgive 
ness implicit in his wide and sympathetic understanding 
he alone wins the *enskied and sainted* Isabel. More, we 



96 MEASURE FOR MEASURE AND THE GOSPELS 

are not told. And we may expect her in future to learn from 
him wisdom, human tenderness, and love: 

What 's mine is yours and what is yours is mine. (v. i. 539) 

If we still find this universal forgiveness strange and many 
have done so we might observe Mariana, who loves Angelo 
with a warm and realistically human love. She sees no fault 
in him, or none of any consequence : 

O my dear lord, 
I crave no other nor no better man. (v. i. 426) 

She knows that 

best men are moulded out of faults, 
And, for the most, become much more the better 
For being a little bad. (v. i. 440) 

The incident is profoundly true. Love asks no questions, 
sees no evil, transfiguring the just and unjust alike. This 
is one of the surest and finest ethical touches in this master 
piece of ethical drama. Its moral of love is, too, the ultimate 
splendour of Jesus* teaching. 

Measure for Measure is indeed based firmly on that 
teaching. The lesson of the play is that of Matthew, v. 20: 

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the 
righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into 
the Kingdom of Heaven. 

The play must be read, not as a picture of normal human 
affairs, but as a parable, like the parables of Jesus. The plot 
is, in fact, an inversion of one of those parables that of the 
Unmerciful Servant (Matthew, xviii) ; and the universal and 
level forgiveness at the end, where all alike meet pardon, is 
one with the forgiveness of the Parable of the Two Debtors 
(Luke, vii). Much has been said about the difficulties of 
Measure for Measure. But, in truth, no play of Shakespeare 
shows more thoughtful care, more deliberate purpose, more 
consummate skill in structural technique, and, finally, more 
penetrating ethical and psychological insight. None shows a 
more exquisitely inwoven pattern. And, if ever the thought 
at first sight seems strange, or the action unreasonable, it will 
be found to reflect the sublime strangeness and unreason of 
Jesus' teaching. 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

IN Othello we are faced with the vividly particular rather 
than the vague and universal. The play as a whole has a 
distinct formal beauty: within it we are ever confronted with 
beautiful and solid forms. The persons tend to appear as 
warmly human, concrete. They are neither vaguely univer 
salized, as in King Lear or Macbeth^ nor deliberately mechan 
ized and vitalized by the poet's philosophic plan as in 
Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens , wherein the sig 
nificance of the dramatic person is dependent almost wholly on 
our understanding of the allegorical or symbolical meaning. 
It is true that lago is here a mysterious, inhuman creature 
of unlimited cynicism : but the very presence of the concrete 
creations around, in differentiating him sharply from the 
rest, limits and defines him. Othello is a story of intrigue 
rather than a visionary statement. If, however, we tend to 
regard Othello, Desdemona, and lago as suggestive symbols 
rather than human beings, we may, from a level view of their 
interaction, find a clear relation existing between Othello and 
other plays of the hate-theme. Such an analysis will be here 
only in part satisfactory. It exposes certain underlying ideas, 
abstracts them from the original : it is less able to interpret 
the whole positive beauty of the play. With this important 
reservation, I shall push the interpretative method as far as 
possible. 

Othello is dominated by its protagonist. Its supremely 
beautiful effects of style are all expressions of Othello's 
personal passion. Thus, in first analysing Othello's poetry, 
we shall lay the basis for an understanding of the play's 
symbolism : this matter of style is, indeed, crucial, and I shall 
now indicate those qualities which clearly distinguish it from 
other Shakespearian poetry. It holds a rich music all its own, 
and possesses a unique solidity and precision of picturesque 

?hrase or image, a peculiar chastity and serenity of thought, 
t is, as a rule, barren of direct metaphysical content. Its 
thought does not mesh with the reader's : rather it is always 

97 



98 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

outside us, aloof. This aloofness is the resultant of an inward 
aloofness of image from image, word from word. The 
dominant quality is separation, not, as is more usual in 
Shakespeare, cohesion. Consider these exquisite poetic move 
ments : 

O heavy hour ! 

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse 
Of sun and nioon, and that the affrighted globe 
Should yawn at alteration, ( v - " 97) 

Or, 

It is the very error of the moon ; 

She comes more near the earth than she was wont, 

And makes men mad. ( v - IO /> 

These are solid gems of poetry which lose little by divorce 
from their context: wherein they differ from the finest 
passages of King Ltar or Macbeth^ which are as wild flowers 
not to be uptorn from their rooted soil if they are to live. In 
these two quotations we should note how the human drama 
is thrown into sudden contrast and vivid, unexpected relation 
with the tremendous concrete machinery of the universe, 
which is thought of in terms of individual heavenly bodies: 
'sun' and 'moon'. The same effect is apparent in : 

Nay, had she been true, 
If Heaven would make me such another world 
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, 
I'd not have sold her for it. (v. H. HO 

Notice the single word 'chrysolite* with its outstanding and 
remote beauty: this is typical of Othello. 

The effect in such passages is primarily one of contrast. 
The vastness of the night sky, and its moving planets, or 
the earth itself here conceived objectively as a solid, round, 
visualized object these things, though thrown momentarily 
into sensible relation with the passions of man, yet remain 
vast, distant, separate, seen but not apprehended; something 
against which the dramatic movement may be silhouetted, 
but with which it cannot be merged. This poetic use of 
heavenly bodies serves to elevate the theme, to raise issues 
infinite and unknowable. Those bodies are not, however, 
implicit symbols of man's spirit, as in King Lean they 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 99 

remain distinct, isolated phenomena, sublimely decorative to 
the play. In Macbeth and King Lear man commands the 
elements and the stars : they are part of him. Compare the 
above quotations from Othello with this from King Lear: 

You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames 

Into her scornful eyes ! Infect her beauty, 

You fen-suck'd fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, 

To fall and blast her pride. (n. iv. 167) 

This is typical: natural images are given a human value. 
They are insignificant, visually : their value is only that which 
they bring to the human passion which cries out to them. 
Their aesthetic grandeur, in and for themselves, is not rele 
vant to the King Lear universe. So, too, Macbeth cries 

Stars, hide your fires; 
Let not light see my black and deep desires. (i. iv. 50) 

And Lady Macbeth: 

Come, thick night, 

And pall thee in the dun nest smoke of Hell, 
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, 
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, 
To cry 'Hold, hold!' (1^.51) 

Here, and in the King Lear extract, there is no clear visual 
effect as in Othello: tremendous images and suggestions are 
evoked only to be blurred as images by the more powerful 
passion which calls them into being. Images in Macbeth are 
thus continually vague, mastered by passion; apprehended, 
but not seen. In Othello's poetry they are concrete, detached; 
seen but not apprehended. We meet the same effect in : 

Like to the Pontic sea, 
Whose icy current and conpulsive course 
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on 
To the Propontic and the Hellespont, 
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, 
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love, 
Till that a capable and wide revenge 
Swallow them up. Now, by yond marble heaven, 
In the due reverence of a sacred vow 
I here engage my words. (i- Hi- 454) 

This is, indeed, a typical speech. The long comparison, 
explicitly made, where in King Lear or Macbeth a series of 



100 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

swiftly evolving metaphors would be more characteristic, is 
another example of the separateness obtaining throughout 
Othello. There is no fusing of word with word, rather a 
careful juxtaposition of one word or image with another. 
And there are again the grand single words, Tropontic', 
Hellespont', with their sharp, clear, consonant sounds, con 
stituting defined aural solids typical of the Othello music: 
indeed," fine single words, especially proper names, are a 
characteristic of this play Anthropophagi, Ottomites, 
Arabian trees, 'the base Indian', the Egyptian, Palestine, 
Mauretania, the Sagittary, Olympus, Mandragora, Othello, 
Desdemona. This is a rough assortment, not all used by 
Othello, but it points the Othello quality of rich, often 
expressly consonantal, outstanding words. Now Othello's 
prayer, with its 'marble heaven*, is most typical and illus 
trative. One watches the figure of Othello silhouetted against 
a flat, solid, moveless sky: there is a plastic, static suggestion 
about the image. Compare it with a similar King Lear prayer : 
O heavens, 

If you do love old men, if your sweet sway 

Allow obedience, if yourselves are old, 

Make it your cause; send down and take my part ! 

(n.iv. 192) 

Here we do not watch Lear: 'We are Lear/ There is no 
visual effect, no rigid subject-object relation between Lear 
and the 'heavens', nor any contrast, but an absolute unspatial 
unity of spirit. The heavens blend with Lear's prayer, each 
is part of the other. There is an intimate interdependence, 
not a mere juxtaposition. Lear thus identifies himself in kind 
with the heavens to which he addresses himself directly: 
Othello speaks of *yond marble heaven', in the third person, 
and swears by it, does not pray to it. It is conceived as outside 
his interests. 

This detached style, most excellent in point of clarity and 
stateliness, tends also to lose something in respect of power. 
At moments of great tension, the Othello style fails of a 
supreme effect. Capable of fine things quite unmatched in 
their particular quality in any other play, it nevertheless 
sinks sometimes to a studied artificiality, nerveless and with 
out force. For example, Othello thinks of himself as: 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC IOI 

one whose subdued eyes, 
Albeit unused to the melting mood, 
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees 
Their medicinal gum. (v. ii. 347) 

Beside this we might place MacdufFs 

O I could play the woman with mine eyes 

And braggart with my tongue ! But, gentle heavens, 

Cut short all intermission . . . (iv. iii. 229) 

Othello's lines here have a certain restrained, melodic beauty, 
like the Ton tic sea' passage; both speeches use the typical 
Othello picturesque image or word; both compare, by 
simile, the passion of man with some picture delightful in 
itself, which is developed for its own sake, slightly over 
developed so that the final result makes us forget the 
emotion in contemplation of the image. Beauty has been 
imposed on human sorrow, rather than shown to be intrinsic 
therein. But Macduff's passionate utterance has not time to 
paint word pictures of 'yond marble heaven', or to search for 
abstruse geographical images of the Hellespont or Arabia. 
There is more force in his first line than all Othello's slightly 
over-strained phraseology of 'subdued eyes' and 'melting 
mood*. Its strength derives from the compression of meta 
phor and the sudden heightened significance of a single, very 
commonplace, word ('woman'), whereas the other style 
deliberately refuses power in the level prolixity of simile, and 
searches always for the picturesque. The Othello style is 
diffuse, leisurely, like a meandering river; the Macbeth style 
compressed, concentrated, and explosive; often jerky, leaping 
like a mountain torrent. But metaphor is not essential to , 
intensest Shakespearian power. Another, still finer, passage 
from King Lear on the same theme might be adduced : 

Cordelia. How does my royal lord? How feres your majesty? 
Lear. You do me wrong to take me out o f the grave : 

Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound 

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears 

Do scald like molten lead. (rv. vii. 44) 

The extraordinary force of that ending is gained by simile: 
but there is no diffusion of content, no accent that does not 
carry the maximum of emotion. It is even more powerful 
than MacdufPs speech, since it lacks excitability: it has the 



IO2 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

control and dignity of Othello's with the compressed, ex 
plosive quality of MacdufFs. The Othello style does not 
compass the overpowering effects of Macbeth or King Lean 
nor does it, as a rule, aim at them. At the most agonizing 
moments of Othello's story, however, there is apparent 
weakness: we find an exaggerated, false rhetoric. 

There is a speech in Othello that begins in the typical 
restrained manner, but degenerates finally to what might 
almost be called bombast. It starts : 

Where should Othello go? 

Now, how dost thou look now ? O ill-starr'd wench ! 
Pale as thy smock \ When we shall meet at compt, 
This look of thine will hurl my soul from Heaven, 
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl ! 
Even like thy chastity. (v. ii. 270) 

Here we have the perfection of the Othello style. Concrete, 
visual, detached. Compare it with Lear's, *Thou art a soul 
in bliss . . .', where the effect, though perhaps more powerful 
and immediate, is yet vague, intangible, spiritualized. Now 
this speech, started in a style that can in its own way challenge 
that of King Lear, rapidly degenerates as Othello's mind is 
represented as collapsing under the extreme of anguish : 

O cursed, cursed slave ! Whip me, ye devils, 
From the possession of this heavenly sight! 
t Blow me about in winds ! roast me in sulphur ! 
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire ! 
O Desdemona ! Desdemona ! dead ! 
Oh! Oh! Oh! (v. ii. 276) 

There is a sudden reversal of poetic beauty : these lines lack 
cogency because they exaggerate rather than concentrate the 
emotion. Place beside these violent eschatological images the 
passage from King Lear: 

And my poor fool is hang'd ! No, no, no life ! 

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, 

And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, 

Never, never, never, never, never ! 

Pray you, undo this button : thank you, sir. 

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, 

Look there, look there ! (v. iii. 307) 



THF OTHELLO Ml'SIC I 03 

Notice by what rough, homely images the passion is trans 
mitted which are as truly an integral part of the naturalism 
of King Lear as the mosaic and polished phrase, and the 
abstruse and picturesque allusion are, in its best passages, 
characteristic of Othello's speech. Thus the extreme, slightly 
exaggerated beauty of Othello's language is not maintained. 
This is even more true elsewhere. Othello, who usually 
luxuriates in deliberate and magnificent rhetoric, raves, falls 
in a trance : 

Lie with her ! lie on her ! We say He on her, when they belie her. Lie 
with her! that 's fulsome. Handkerchief- confessions handkerchief! 
To confess, and be hanged for his labour; first, to be hanged, and then 
to confess I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such 
shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake 
me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is \ possible? Confess 
handkerchief! O devil! (iv. i. 35) 

Whereas Lear's madness never lacks artistic meaning? 
whereas its most extravagant and grotesque effects are pre 
sented with imaginative cogency, Othello can speak words 
like these. This is the lago-spirit, the lago-medicine, at 
work, like an acid eating into bright metal. This is the 
primary fact of Othello and therefore of the play: something 
of solid beauty is undermined, wedged open so that it exposes 
an extreme ugliness. 

When Othello is represented as enduring loss of control he 
is, as Macbeth and Lear never are, ugly, idiotic; but when he 
has full control heattains an architectural stateliness of quarried 
speech, a silver rhetoric of a kind unique in Shakespeare: 

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul 

Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars ! 

It is the cause. Yet 1*11 not shed her blood; 

Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, 

And smooth as monumental alabaster. 

Yet she must die, else she*Il betray more men. 

Put out the light, and then put out the light. 

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, 

I can again thy former light restore, 

Should I repent me : bat once pat out thy light, 

Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature, 

I know not where is that Promethean heat 

That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose, 

I cannot give it vital growth again, 

It needs must wither : I'll smell it on the tree. (v. ii. i) 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 



This is the noble Othello music: highly-coloured, rich in 
sound and phrase, stately. Each word solidifies as it takes its 
place in the pattern. This speech well illustrates the Othello 
style: the visual or tactile suggestion 'whiter skin of hers 
than snow', 'smooth as monumental alabaster*; the slightly 
over-decorative phrase, 'flaming minister'; the momentary 
juxtaposition of humanity and the vast spaces of the night, 
the 'chaste stars'; the concrete imagery of 'thou cunning'st 
pattern of excelling nature', and the lengthy comparison ^of 
life with light; the presence of simple forward-flowing clarity 
of dignified statement and of simile in place of the super- 
logical welding of thought with molten thought as in the 
more compressed, agile, and concentrated poetry of Macbeth 
and King Lear\ and the fine outstanding single word, 
Promethean'. In these respects Othello's speech is nearer 
the style of the aftermath of Elizabethan literature, the 
settled lava of that fiery eruption, which gave us the solid 
image of Marvell and the 'marmoreal phrase* of Browne: it 
is the most Miltonic thing in Shakespeare. 

This peculiarity of style directs our interpretation in two 
ways. First, the tremendous reversal from extreme, almost 
over-decorative, beauty, to extreme ugliness both of a kind 
unusual in Shakespeare will be seen to reflect a primary 
truth about the play. That I will demonstrate later in my 
essay. Second, the concreteness and separation of image, 
word, or phrase, contrasting with the close-knit language 
elsewhere, suggests a proper approach to Othello which is not 
proper to Macbeth or King Lear. Separation is the rule 
throughout Othello. Whereas in Macbeth and King Lear we 
have one dominant atmospere, built of a myriad subtleties of 
thought and phraseology entwining throughout, subduing 
our minds wholly to their respective visions, whereas each 
has a single quality, expresses as a whole a single statement, 
Othello is built rather of outstanding differences. In Othello 
all is silhouetted, defined, concrete. Instead of reading a 
unique, pervading, atmospheric suggestion generally our 
key to interpretation of what happens within that atmosphere 
we must here read the meaning of separate persons. The 
persons here are truly separate. Lear, Cordelia, Edmund all 
grow out of the Lear universe, all are levelled by its charac- 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 105 

teristic atmosphere, all blend with it and with each other, so 
that they are less closely and vividly defined. They lack 
solidity. Othello, Desdemona, lago, however, are clearly and 
vividly separate. All here but lago are solid, concrete. 
Contrast is raised to its highest pitch. Othello is statuesque, 
Desdemona most concretely human and individual, lago, if 
not human or in any usual sense 'realistic', is quite unique. 
Within analysis of these three persons and their interaction 
lies the meaning of Othello. In Macbeth or King Lear we 
interpret primarily a singleness of vision. Here, confronted 
with a significant diversity, we must have regard to the 
essential relation existing between the three main personal 
conceptions. Interpretation must be based not on unity but 
differentiation. Therefore I shall pursue an examination of 
this triple symbolism; which analysis will finally resolve the 
difficulty of Othello's speech, wavering as it does between 
what at first sight appear an almost artificial beauty and an 
equally inartistic ugliness. 

Othello radiates a world of romantic, heroic, and pictur 
esque adventure. All about him is highly coloured. He is a 
Moor; he is noble and generally respected; he is proud in 
the riches of his achievement. Now his prowess as a soldier 
is emphasized. His arms have spent 'their dearest action in 
the tented field 1 (i. iii. 85). Again, 

The tyrant custom, most grave Senators, 

Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war 

My thrice-driven bed of down. (i. iii. 230) 

His iron warriorship is suggested throughout. lago says : 

Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon, 

When it hath blown his ranks into the air, 

And, like the Devil, from his very arm 

PufPd his own brother: and can he be angry? 

Something of moment then : I will go meet him : 

There's matter in't indeed, if he be angry. (in. iv. r 5 3) 

And Lodovico: 

Is this the noble nature 

Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue 
The shot of accident, nor dart of chance, 
Could neither graze nor pierce? (iv. i. 276) 



IO6 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

But we also meet a curious discrepancy. Othello tells us: 

Rude am I in my speech, 
And little faless'd with the soft phrase of peace. (i . iii. 8 1 ) 

Yet the dominant quality in this play is the exquisitely 
moulded language, the noble cadence and chiselled phrase, 
of Othello's poetry. Othello's speech, therefore, reflects not a 
soldier's language, but the quality of soldiership in^ all jts 
glamour of romantic adventure; it holds an imaginative 
realism. It has a certain exotic beauty, is a storied and 
romantic treasure-house of rich, colourful experiences. He 
recounts his adventures, telling of 

antres vast and desarts idle, 
Rough quarries, rocks, and hilk whose heads touch heaven, 

(i. iii. 140) 

of Cannibals, and the Anthropophagi, and 'men whose heads 
do grow beneath their shoulders' (i. iii. 144)- He tells 
Desdemona of the handkerchief given by 'an Egyptian* to 
his mother : 

'Tis true : there 's magic in the web of it : 

A sibyl, that had numbered in the world 

The sun to course two hundred compasses, 

In her prophetic fury sew'd the work; 

The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk, 

And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful 

Conserved of maidens' hearts. (in. iv. 70) 

Swords are vivid, spiritualized things to Othello. There is 
his famous line : 

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. 

(i. ii. 59) 
And in the last scene, he says : 

I have another weapon in this chamber; 

It is a sword of Spain, the ice-brook's temper. (v. ii . 2 5 z) 

In his address at the end, he speaks of himself as 

one whose hand. 

Like the base Indian, threw a. pearl away 
Richer than all his tribe. (v. ii. 345) 

His tears flow as the gum from 'Arabian trees' (v. ii. 349); 
he recounts how in Aleppo he smote *a malignant and a 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC tOJ 

turban'd Turk' (v. ii. 352) for insulting Venice. Finally there 
is his noble apostrophe to his lost 'occupation' : 

Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars, 

That make ambition virtue ! O, farewell ! 

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, 

The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, 

The royal banner and aU quality, 

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war I 

And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats 

The immortal Jove's dread clamours counterfeit, 

Farewell! Othello's occupation 's gone. (in. iii. 350) 

Again, we have the addition of phrase to separate phrase, 
rather than the interdependence, the evolution of thought 
from thought, the clinging mesh of close-bound suggestions 
of other plays. This noble eulogy of war is intrinsic to the 
conception. War is in Othello's blood. When Desdemona 
accepts him, she knows she must not be *a moth of peace* (i. 
iii. 258). Othello is a compound of highly-coloured, romantic 
adventure he is himself 'coloured' and war; together 
with a great pride and a great faith in those realities. His very 
life is dependent on a fundamental belief in the validity 
and nobility of human action with, perhaps, a strong 
tendency towards his own achievement in particular. Now 
war, in Shakespeare, is usually a positive spiritual value, like 
love. There is reference to the soldiership of the protagonist 
in all the plays analysed in my present treatment. Soldiership 
is almost the condition of nobility, and so the Shakespearian 
hero is usually a soldier. Therefore Othello, with reference 
to the Shakespearian universe, becomes automatically a 
symbol of faith in human values of love, of war, of romance 
in a wide and sweeping sense. He is, as it were, conscious of 
all he stands for: from the first to the last he loves his own 
romantic history. He is, like Troilus, dedicate to these 
values, has faith and pride in both. Like Troilus he is con 
ceived as extraordinarily direct, simple, 'credulous' (iv. i. 46). 
Othello, as he appears in the action of the play, may be 
considered the high-priest of human endeavour, robed in the 
vestments of romance, whom we watch serving in the temple 
of war at the altar of love's divinity. 

Desdemona is his divinity. She is, at the same time, 
warmly human. There is a certain domestic femininity about 



IO8 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

her. She is 'a maiden never bold 1 (i. iii. 94). We hear that 
'the house affairs 7 (had Cordelia any?) drew her often from 
Othello's narrative (i. iii. 147). But she asks to hear the 
whole history: 

I did consent, 

And often did beguile her of her tears, 

When I did speak of some distressful stroke 

That my youth suffered. My story being done, 

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs: 

She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange, 

'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful : 

She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd 

That heaven had made her such a man. (i. iii. 1 5 5) 

The same domesticity and gentleness is apparent throughout. 
She talks of 'to-night at supper* (in. iii. 57) or *to-morrow 
dinner' (in. iii. 58); she is typically feminine in her attempt 
to help Cassio, and her pity for him. This is how she des 
cribes her suit to Othello: 

Why, this is not a boon ; 
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, 
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm, 
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit 
To your own person . . . ("i- iii- 7 6 ) 

a speech reflecting a world of sex-contrast. She would 
bind Othello's head with her handkerchief that handker 
chief which is to become a terrific symbol of Othello's 
jealousy. The Othello world is eminently domestic, and 
Desdemona expressly feminine. We hear of her needlework 
(iv. i. 197), her fan, gloves, mask (rv. ii. 8). In the exquisite 
willow-song scene, we see her with her maid, Emilia. Emilia 
gives her 'her nightly wearing' (iv. iii. 16). Emilia says she 
has laid on her bed the 'wedding-sheets' (iv. ii, 104) Desde- 
rnona asked for. Then there is the willow-song, brokenly 
sung whilst Emilia *unpins* (iv. iii. 34) Desdemona's dress: 

My mother had a maid called Barbara : 

She was in love, and he she loved proved mad 

And did forsake her ... {iv. iii. 26) 

The extreme beauty and pathos of this scene are largely 
dependent on the domesticity of it. Othello is eminently a 
domestic tragedy. But this element in the play is yet to be 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC IO9 

related to another more universal element. Othello is con 
cretely human, so is Desdemona. Othello is very much the 
typical middle-aged bachelor entering matrimony late in 
life, but he is also, to transpose a phrase of lago's, a symbol of 
human especially masculine 'purpose, courage, and 
valour* (iv. ii. 2 1 8), and, in a final judgement, is seen to 
represent the idea of human faith and value in a very wide 
sense. Now Desdemona, also very human, with an individual 
domestic feminine charm and simplicity, is yet also a symbol 
of woman in general daring the unknown seas of marriage 
with the mystery of man. Beyond this, in the far flight of a 
transcendental interpretation, it is clear that she becomes a 
symbol of man's ideal, the supreme value of love. At the 
limit of the series of wider and wider suggestions which 
appear from imaginative contemplation of a poetic symbol 
she is to be equated with the divine principle. In one scene 
of Othello^ and one only, direct poetic symbolism breaks 
across the vividly human, domestic world of this play. 1 As 
everything in Othello is separated, defined, so the plot itself 
is in two distinct geographical divisions: Venice and Cyprus. 
Desdemona leaves the safety and calm of her home for the 
stormy voyage to Cyprus and the tempest of the following 
tragedy. lago's plot begins to work in the second part. The 
storm scene, between the two parts, is important. 

Storms are continually symbols of tragedy in Shakespeare. 
This scene contains some most vivid imaginative effects, 
among them passages of fine storm-poetry of the usual kind: 

For do but stand upon the foaming shore, 

The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds ; 

The wind-shak'd surge, with high and monstrous mane, 

Seems to cast water on the burning bear, 

And quench the guards of the ever-fixed pole : 

1 never did like molestation view, 

On the enchafed flood. (". i- x 

This storm-poetry is here closely associated with the human 
element. And in this scene where direct storm-symbolism 
occurs it is noteworthy that the figures of Desdemona and 
Othello are both strongly idealized : 

i But note too the significance of the nugk handkerchief a ktk a ymM *f domestic 
umctity tuuttkfflo.fi one link wtk tJu SHpcnuttural (1947). 



110 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

Cassio. Tempests themselves, high seas and howling winds, 
The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands 
Traitors ensteep'd to dog the guiltless keel 
As having sense of beauty, do omit 
Their mortal natures, letting go safely by 
The divine Desdemona, 

Mtmtano. What is she? 

Cassia. She that I spake of, our great captain's captain, 
Left in the conduct of the bold lago, 
Whose footing here anticipates our thoughts 
A se'nnight's speed. Great Jove, Othello guard, 
And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath, 
That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, 
Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, 
Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits, 
And bring all Cyprus comfort ! 



O, behold, 

The riches of the ship is come on shore ! 
Ye men of Cyprus, let her have your knees. 
Hail to thee, lady ! and the grace of Heaven, 
Before, behind thee, and on every hand, 
Enwheel thee round ! (n. i. 68) 

Desdemona is thus endued with a certain transcendent 
quality of beauty and grace. She 'paragons description and 
wild fame' says Cassio : she is 

One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens, 

And in the essential vesture of creation 

Does tire the ingener. (n. i. 63) 

And Othello enters the port of Cyprus as a hero coming to 
'bring comfort', to 'give renewed fire' to men. The entry of 
Desdemona and that of Othello are both heralded by dis 
charge of guns; which both merges finely with the tempest- 
symbolism and the violent stress and excitement of the scene 
as a whole, and heightens our sense of the warrior nobility 
of the protagonist and his wife, subdued as she is 'to the 
very quality 1 of her lord (i. iii. 253). Meeting Desdemona, he 
speaks: 

Othello, O my fair warrior ! 

Dfsdemona. My dear Othello ! 

Othelh. It gives me wonder great as my content 
To see you here before me. O my soul's joy ! 
If after every tempest come such calms, 
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death ! 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC III 

And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas 

Olympus-high and duck again as low 

As Hell's from Heaven ! If it were now to die, 

'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear, 

My soul hath her content so absolute 

That not another comfort like to this 

Succeeds in unknown fate. (n. i. 185) 

This is the harmonious marriage of true and noble minds. 
Othello, Desdemona, and their love are here apparent, in 
this scene of storm and reverberating discharge or cannon, as 
things of noble and conquering strength : they radiate roman 
tic valour. Othello is essential man in all his prowess and 
protective strength; Desdemona essential woman, gentle, 
loving, brave in trust of her warrior husband. The war is 
over. The storm of sea or bruit of cannonade are powerless to 
hurt them : yet there is another storm brewing in the venomed 
mind of lago. Instead of merging with and accompanying 
tragedy the storm here is thus contrasted with the following 
tragic events: as usual in Otkelloy contrast and separation 
take the place of fusion and unity. This scene is thus a 
microcosm of the play, reflecting its action. Colours which 
are elsewhere softly toned are here splashed vividly on the 
play's canvas. Here especially Othello appears a prince of 
heroes, Desdemona is lit by a divine feminine radiance: both 
are transfigured. They are shown as coming safe to land, by 
Heaven's *grace', triumphant, braving war and tempestuous 
seas, guns thundering their welcome. The reference of all 
this, on the plane of high poetic symbolism, to the play as a 
whole is evident. 

Against these two lago pits his intellect. In this scene too 
lago declares himself with especial clarity: 

O gentfe lady, do not put me to't; 

For I am nothing, if not critical. (u. i. 118) 

His conversation with Desdemona reveals his philosophy. 
Presented under the cloak of fun, it exposes nevertheless his 
attitude to life: that of the cynic. Roderigo is his natural 
companion: the fool is a convenient implement, and at the 
same time continual food for his philosophy. Othello and 
Desdemona are radiant, beautiful: lago opposes them, 
critical, intellectual. Like cold steel his cynic skill will run 



112 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

through the warm body of their love. Asked to praise Des 
demona, he draws a picture of womanly goodness in a vein 
of mockery; and concludes: 

lago. She was a wight if ever such wight were 

Desdemona. To do what? 

lago. To suckle fools and chronicle small beer. (u- i. * 5 8 ) 

Here is his reason for hating Othello's and Desderaona's 
love: he hates their beauty, to him a meaningless, stupid 
thing. That is lago. Cynicism is his philosophy, his very life, 
his 'motive* in working Othello's ruin. The play turns on 
this theme: the cynical intellect pitted against a lovable 
humanity transfigured by qualities of heroism and grace. As 
Desdemona and Othello embrace he says : 

O you are well tuned now ! 
But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, 
As honest as I am. ( > 2O2 ) 

*Music' is apt: we remember Othello's rich harmony of 
words. Against the Othello music lago concentrates all the 
forces of cynic villainy. 

lago's cynicism is recurrent: 

Virtue ! a fig ! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus . . . 

(1.111.323) 

Love to him is 

. . . merely a hist of the blood and a permission of the will. 

(i. iii. 339) 

He believes Othello's and Desdemona's happiness will be 
short-lived, since he puts no faith in the validity of love. 
Early in the play he tells Roderigo : 

It cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor 

nor he his to her ... These Moors are changeable in their wills . . . 

( the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly 
' as bitter as coloquintida. She must change for youth: when she is sated 
with his body, she will find the error of her choice : she must have 
change, she must. (i. iii- 347) 

This is probably lago's sincere belief, his usual attitude to 
love: he is not necessarily deceiving Roderigo. After this, 
when he is alone, we hear that he suspects Othello with his 
own wife : nor are we surprised. And, finally, his own cynical 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 113 

beliefs suggest to him a way of spiting Othello. He thinks of 
Cassio: 

After some time, to abuse Othello's ear 

That he is too familiar with his wife. (i. iii. 401) 

The order is important: lago first states his disbelief in 
Othello's and Desdemona's continued love, and next thinks 
of a way of precipitating its end. That is, he puts his cynicism 
into action. The same rhythmic sequence occurs later. lago 
witnesses Cassio's meeting with Desdemona at Cyprus, and 
comments as follows : 

He takes her by the palm : ay, well said, whisper : with as little a web as 
this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do; I will 
gyve thee in thine own courtship . . . (n. i. 168) 

lago believes Cassio loves Desdemona. He has another 
cynical conversation with Roderigo as to Desdemona's 
chances of finding satisfaction with Othello, and the pro 
bability of her love for Cassio (n. i. 223-79). A kiss, to lago, 
cannot be 'courtesy': it is 

Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of 
lust and foul thoughts. (n. i. 265) 

lago is sincere enough and means what he says. Cynicism is 
the key to his mind and actions. After Roderigo's departure, 
he again refers to his suspicions of Othello and Cassio too 
with his own wife. He asserts definitely and here there 
is no Roderigo to impress his belief in Cassio's guilt : 

That Cassio loves her, I do well believe it ; 

That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit. (n. i. 298) 

In this soliloquy he gets his plans clearer: again, they are 
suggested by what he believes to be truth. I do not suggest 
that lago lacks conscious villainy: far from it. Besides, in 
another passage he shows that he is aware of Desdemona's 
innocence (iv. i. 48). But it is important that we observe how 
his attitude to life casts the form and figure of his meditated 
revenge. His plan arises out of the cynical depths of his 
nature. When, at the end, he says, 'I told him what I thought' 
(v. ii. 174), he is speaking at least a half-truth. He hates 
the romance of Othello and the loveliness of Desdemona 



114 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

because he is by nature the enemy of these things, Cassio, 
he says, 

hath a daily beauty in his life 
That makes mine ugly. (v. i. 19) 

This is his 'motive* throughout: other suggestions are sur 
face deep only. He is cynicism loathing beauty, refusing to 
allow its existence. Hence the venom of his plot: the plot is 
lago both are ultimate, causeless, self-begotten. lago is 
cynicism incarnate and projected into action. 

lago is thus utterly devilish: there is no weakness in his 
casing armour of unrepentant villainy. He is a kind of 
Mephistopheles, closely equivalent to Goethe's devil, the two 
possessing the same qualities of mockery and easy cynicism. 
Thus he is called a 'hellish villain' by Lodovico (v. ii. 367), a 
'demi-devil' by Othello (v. ii. 300). Othello says: 

J look down towards his feet; but that 's a fable. 

If that thou be'est a devil, I cannot kill thee. (v. ii. 285) 

lago himself recognizes a kinship: 

Hell and night 

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's sight. 
i (i. iii. 409) 

And, 

Divinity of Hell! 

When devils will the blackest sins put on, 
They do suggest at first with heavenly sho\\ s 
As I do now. (n. iii. 359) 

He knows that his 'poison' (in. iii. 326) will 'burn like the 
mines of sulphur' (ni.-iii. 330) in Othello. Thus lago is, to 
Othello, the antithesis of Desdemona: the relation is that of 
the spirit of denial to the divine principle. Desdemona 'plays 
the god' (n. iii. 356) with Othello: if she is false, 'Heaven 
mocks itself (HI, iii. 278). During the action, as lago's plot 
succeeds, her essential divinity changes, for Othello, to a 
thing hideous and devilish that is to its antithesis : 

Her name that was as fresh 
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black 
As mine own face. (HI. iii. 387) 

She is now 'devil* (iv. i. 252, 255) or 'the fair devil' (in. iii. 
479); her hand, a 'sweating devil' (in. iv, 43); the 'devils 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 115 

themselves* will fear to seize her for her heavenly looks (iv. 
ii. 35). Thus lago, himself a kind of devil, insidiously eats 
his way into this world of romance, chivalry, nobility* The 
word 'devil' occurs frequently in the latter acts: devils are 
alive here, ugly little demons of black disgrace. They swarm 
over the mental horizon of the play, occurring frequently. 
lago is directly or indirectly their author and originator. 
*Devil', 'Heir, 'damnation* these words are recurrent, and 
continually juxtaposed to thoughts of 'Heaven 1 , prayer, 
angels. We are clearly set amid 'Heaven and men and devils' 
(v. ii. 219). Such terms are related here primarily to sexual 
impurity. In Othello, pure love is the supreme good ; impurity 
damnation. This pervading religious tonal significance re 
lating to infidelity explains lines such as : 

Turn thy complexion there, 
Patience, thou young and rose-lipped chenibin 
Ay, there, look grim as Hell ! (iv. ii. 61) 

Othello addresses Emilia: 

You, mistress, 

That have the office opposite to Saint Peter, 
And keep the gate of Hell ! (iv. ii. 89) 

Here faithful love is to be identified with the divine, the 
'heavenly'; unfaithful love, or the mistrust which imagines 
it, or the cynic that gives birth to that imagination all these 
are to be identified with the devil. The hero is set between 
the forces of Divinity and Hell. The forces of Hell win and 
pure love lies slain. Therefore Othello cries to 'devils' to 
whip him from that 'heavenly* sight -(v. ii. 276), He knows 
himself to have been entrapped by hell-forces. The lago- 
Devil association is of importance. 

It will be remembered that Othello is a play of concrete 
forms. This world is a world of visual images, colour, and 
romance. It will also be clear that the mesh of devil- 
references I have just suggested show a mental horizon 
black, formless, colourless. They contrast with the solid, 
chiselled, enamelled Othello style elsewhere. This devil-world 
is insubstantial, vague, negative. Now on the plane of per 
sonification we see that Othello and Desdemona are concrete, 
moulded of flesh and blood, warm. lago contrasts with them 



Tl6 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

metaphysically as well as morally: he is unlimited, formless 
villainy. He is the spirit of denial, wholly negative. He never 
has visual reality. He is further blurred by the fact of his 
being something quite different from what he appears to the 
others. Is he to look like a bluff soldier, or Mephistopheles ? 
He is a different kind of being from Othello and Desdemona : 
he belongs to a different world. They, by their very existence, 
assert the positive beauty of created forms hence Othello's 
perfected style of speech, his strong human appeal, his faith 
in creation's values of love and war. This world of created 
forms, this sculptural and yet pulsing beauty, the lago-spirit 
undermines, poisons, disintegrates. lago is a demon of 
cynicism, colourless, formless, in a world of colours, shapes, 
and poetry 's music. Of all these he would create chaos. 
Othello's words are apt: 

Excellent wretch ! Perdition catch my soul 

But I do love thce ' And when I love thee not, 

Chaos is come again. ('"- i". 90) 

Chaos indeed. lago works at the foundations of human 
values. Cassio is a'soldier: he ruins him as a soldier, makes 
him drunk. So he ruins both Othello's love and warrior- 
heart. He makes him absurd, ugly. Toward the end of the 
play there is hideous suggestion. We hear of 'cords, knives, 
poison* (in. iii. 389), of lovers *as prime as goats, as hot as 
monkeys' (in. iii. 404); we meet Bianca, the whore, told by 
Cassio to 'throw her vile guesses in the Devil's teeth' (HI. iv 
183); there are Othello's incoherent mutterings, *PIshl 
Noses, ears and lips!' (iv. i. 43), he will 'chop* Desdemona 
'into messes' (iv. i. 210); she reminds him of 'foul toads' 
(iv. ii. 60). Watching Cassio, he descends to this: 

O ! I see that nose of yours, but not the dog 1 shall throw it to. 

(iv. i. 144) 

Othello strikes Desdemona, behaves like a raging beast. 
Tire and brimstone!' (iv. i. 246) he cries, and again, 'Goats 
and monkeys!' (iv. i. 274). 'Heaven stops the nose' at Des- 
demona's impurity (iv. ii. 76). Othello in truth behaves like 
'a beggar in his drink' (iv. ii. 120). In all these phrases I 
would emphasize not the sense and dramatic relevance alone, 
but the suggestion the accumulative effect of ugliness, 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC I I 7 

hellishness, idiocy, negation. It is a formless, colourless 
essence, insidiously undermining a world of concrete, visual, 
richly-toned forms. That is the lago-spirit embattled against 
the domesticity, the romance, the idealized humanity of the 
O the Ik world. 

Here, too, we find the reason for the extreme contrast of 
Othello's two styles: one exotically beautiful, the other 
blatantly absurd, ugly. There is often no dignity in Othello's 
rage. There is not meant to be. lago would make discord 
of the Othello music. Thus at his first conquest he filches 
something of Othello's style and uses it himself: 

Not poppy, nor mandragora, 
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, 
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep 
Which thou owed T st yesterday. (HI. iii. 331) 

To him Othello's pride in his life-story and Desdemona's 
admiration were ever stupid : 

Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor, but for bragging 
and telling her fantastical lies : and will she love him still for prating ? 

(11. i. 225) 

lago, 'nothing if not critical', speaks some truth of Othello's 
style it is 'fantastical'. As I have shown, it is somewhat 
over-decorative, highly-coloured. The dramatic value of this 
style now appears. In fact, a proper understanding of 
Othello's style reveals lago's 'motive* so often questioned. 
There is something sentimental in Othello's language, in 
Othello. lago is pure cynicism. That lago should scheme 
in this dramatic symbolism forged in terms of interacting 
persons to undermine Othello's faith in himself, his wife, 
and his 'occupation', is inevitable. Logically, the cynic must 
oppose the sentimentalist: dramatically, he works his ruin 
by deceit and deception. That Othello often just misses tragic 
dignity is the price of his slightly strained emotionalism. 
Othello loves emotion for its own sake, luxuriates in it, like 
Richard II. As ugly and idiot ravings, disjointed and with 
no passionate dignity even, succeed Othello's swell and flood 
of poetry, lago's triumph seems complete. The honoured 
warrior, rich in strength and experience, noble in act and 



Il8 THE OTHELLO MUSIC 

repute, lies in a trance, nerveless, paralysed by the lago- 
conception : 

Work on, my medicine, work. (iv. i. 45) 

But lago's victory is not absolute. During the last scene, 
Othello is a nobly tragic figure. His ravings are not final: 
he rises beyond them. He slays Desdemona finally not so 
much in rage, as for 'the cause* (v. ii. i). He slays her in love. 
Though Desdemona fails him, his love, homeless, 'perplexed 
in the extreme* (v. ii. 345), endures. He will kill her and 
'love her after* (v. ii. 19). In that last scene, too, he utters 
the grandest of his poetry. The lago-spirit never finally 
envelops him, masters him, disintegrates his soul. Those 
gem-like miniatures of poetic movement quoted at the start 
of my essay are among Othello's last words. His vast love 
has, it is true, failed in a domestic world. But now symbols 
of the wide beauty of the universe enrich his thoughts : the 
'chaste stars', the 'sun and moon', the 'affrighted globe', the 
world 'of one entire and perfect chrysolite' that may not buy 
a Desdemona's love. At the end we know that Othello's fault 
is simplicity alone. He is, indeed, *a gull, a dolt* (v. ii. 161); 
he loves 'not wisely but too well' (v. ii. 343). His simple faith 
in himself endures : and at the end, he takes just pride in 
recalling his honourable service. 

In this essay I have attempted to expose the underlying 
thought of the play. Interpretation here is not easy, nor 
wholly satisfactory. As all within Othello save the lago- 
theme is separated, differentiated, solidified, so the play 
itself seems at first to be divorced from wider issues, a lone 
thing of meaningless beauty in the Shakespearian universe, 
solitary, separate, unyielding and chaste as the moon. It is 
unapproachable, yields itself to no easy mating with our 
minds. Its thought does not readily mesh with our thought. 
We can visualize it, admire its concrete felicities of phrase 
and image, the mosaic of its language, the sculptural outline 
of its effects, the precision and chastity of its form. But one 
cannot be lost in it, subdued to it, enveloped by it, as one 
is drenched and refreshed by the elemental cataracts of King 
Lear\ one cannot be intoxicated by it as by the rich wine 
of Antony and Cleopatra* Othello is essentially outside us, 



THE OTHELLO MUSIC 119 

beautiful with a lustrous, planetary beauty. Yet the lago- 
conception is of a different kind from the rest of the play. 
This conception alone, if no other reason existed, would point 
the necessity of an intellectual interpretation. So we see 
the lago-spirit gnawing at the root of all the Othello values, 
the Othello beauties; he eats into the core and heart of this 
romantic world, worms his way into its solidity, rotting it, 
poisoning it. Once this is clear, the whole play begins to have 
meaning. On the plane of dramatic humanity, we see a story 
of the cynic intriguing to ruin the soldier and his love. On 
the plane of poetic conception, in matters of technique, style, 
personification there we see a spirit of negation, colourless, 
and undefined, attempting to make chaos of a world of 
stately, architectural, and exquisitely coloured forms. The 
two styles of Othello's speech illustrate this. Thus the dif 
ferent technique of the Othello and lago conceptions is 
intrinsic with the plot of the play: in them we have the spirit 
of negation set against the spirit of creation. That is why 
lago is undefined, devisualized, inhuman, in a play of con 
summate skill in concrete imagery and vivid human delinea 
tion. He is a colourless and ugly thing in a world of colour 
and harmony. His failure lies in this: in the final scene, at 
the moment of his complete triumph, Emilia dies for her 
mistress to the words of Desdemona's willow-song, and the 
Othello music itself sounds with a nobler cadence, a richer 
flood of harmonies, a more selfless and universalized flight 
of the imagination than before. The beauties of the Othello 
world are not finally disintegrated: they make 'a swan-like 
end, fading in music', 

ADDITIONAL NOTE (1947) 

Any valuable discussion of Othello's physical appearance and general status 
as a 'noble Moor' must take full account of Morocco's self-description in Tkc 
Merchant of Venice. Imaginatively, the two conceptions are almost identical, 
the one being a first sketch of the other. 

For the Handkerchief, see my note on p. 109; and also my Principles of 
S&akespeariaa Production. 



VI 
BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

FROM the crystal lucidity, even flow, and brilliant 
imagery of the style of Julius Caesar stand out two main 
personal themes: the Brutus-theme and the Cassius-theme. 
The one predominates at the start, the other at the finish. 
The two men are finely contrasted. But I shall not concern 
myself in this essay primarily with that contrast. Nor shall 
I consider the play as a whole in its romantic and spiritual 
significance. The Julius Caesar universe is one of high- 
spirited adventure and nobility, of heroic optimism, erotic 
emotion. It is differentiated sharply from the plays succeeding 
it. It is essentially a play of keen spiritual faith and vision, 
curiously preceding the sequence of the hate-theme which 
starts with Hamlet. These important elements I do not 
analyse here. 1 Rather I outline the imaginative nature of the 
Brutus-theme alone; andjin considering the figure of Brutus, 
I shall indicate how his soul-experience resembles that of 
Macbeth. The process is interesting, since it forces us to cut 
below the surface crust of plot and 'character', and to expose 
those riches of poetic imagination too often deep-buried in 
our purely unconscious enjoyment of Shakespeare's art. 
Moreover, it will serve as a valuable introduction to the 
complexities of the Macbeth vision itself. 

Brutus is confronted with a task from which his nature 
revolts. He, like Macbeth, embarks on a line of action des 
tructive rather than creative; directed against the symbol of 
established authority; at root, perhaps, selfish. For, though 
he may tell himself that his ideals force him to a work of 
secrecy, conspiracy, and destruction, he is not at peace. He 
suffers a state of spiritual or mental division. Two impulses 
diverge: one urges him to conspiracy and murder, the other 
reminds him of Caesar's goodness and the normal methods 
of upright men. He is thus divided torn between a certain 
sense of duty and his instinct for peaceful and civilized 
behaviour. Now his state is very similar to that of Macbeth. 

* My comprehensive analysis of Julius Caesar ia presented in The Imperial Thcvt. 



120 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 121 

Though their motives at first sight appear to be very dif 
ferent, yet in each the resulting disharmony is almost identical 
in imaginative impact. We should not let our sight of a 
poetic reality be blurred by consideration of 'causes'. With 
Macbeth it is almost impossible to fit clear terms of con 
ceptual thought to the motives tangled in his mind or soul. 
Therein lies the fine truth of the Macbeth conception: a deep, 
poetic, psychology or metaphysic of the birth of evil. He 
himself is hopelessly at a loss, and has little idea as to why 
he is going to murder Duncan. He tries to fit names to his 
reasons 'ambition', for instance but this is only a name. 
The poet's mind-is here at grips with the problem of spiritual 
evil the inner state of disintegration, disharmony and fear, 
from which is born an act of crime and destruction. And the 
state of evil endured by Macbeth is less powerfully, but 
similarly, experienced by Brutus. Its signs are loneliness, 
a sense of unreality, a sickly vision of nightmare forms. It 
contemplates murder and anarchy to symbolize outwardly 
its own inner anarchy, and so, by forcibly creating itself in 
things around it, to restore contact with its environment for 
its severed and lonely individuality. Now one simple state 
ment can be made of both Macbeth and Brutus: they both 
suffer a state of division, due to conflicting impulses, for and 
against murder. Their inner disharmony is given an almost 
identical reflection in words not only in terms of logical 
statement, but in terms, too, of the more important verbal 
colour and association, imagery, rhythm in short, of poetry. 
Consider Brutus' speech: 

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar 

I have not slept. 

Between the acting of a dreadful thing 

And the first motion, all the interim is 

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream : 

The Genius and the mortal instruments 

Are then in council; and the state of man, 

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then 

The nature of an insurrection. (11. i- 61) 

Compare Macbeth *s: 

This supernatural soliciting 
Cannot be good, cannot be ill : if ill. 
Why hath it given me earnest of success 



122 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

Commencing with a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor. 

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion 

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, 

And makes my seated heart knock at my ribs 

Against the use of nature? Present fears 

Are less than horrible imaginings : 

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, 

Shakes so my single state of man that function 

Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is 

But what is not. (i. in. 130) 

The second speech is more vivid, powerful, and tense: but 
in quality they are alike. One is only a more packed and 
pregnant verbal expression of the state of being expressed 
by the other. Each gives us a sickly sense of nightmare 
unreality. The ordinary forms of reality, to the self-contem 
plating mind in the grip of evil, have become 'nothing* : and 
a ghastly negation, a black abyss of nothing, has usurped the 
significance of reality. Thus the mind endures 'horrible 
imaginings' which are 'like a phantasma or a hideous dream'. 
Both speeches use the metaphor, *the state of man*. This 
'state' is shaken from its normal balance of faculties, so that 
it endures anarchy and disorder. This anarchy of the soul 
reflects the outer anarchy which it is fated to impose by its 
act of murder, directed against the symbol of ordered com 
munity, the King, or Caesar: the soul mirrors as in a glass 
the disharmony and disruption to be brought about by its 
act of nihilism. All three realities are intertwined : the chaos 
in the 'state of man'; the act of murder; the resulting chaos 
in the state of the community. 

The instigation in both plays comes partly from within, 
partly from without. Though Cassius' words 'whet* Brutus 
against Caesar we know that he has already suffered the 
beginnings of inward division. He is already, as he tells 
Cassius, *with himself at war' (i. ii. 46). In the same way, 
though Macbeth is urged on by his wife, he has already 
been in contact with the Weird Sisters. Both Brutus and 
Macbeth find their own vague mental suggestions brought 
to rapid growth by outside influences. Both, too, promise 
to consider the matter further: 

Brutus. t ... for this present 

I would not, so with love I might entreat you, 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 



Be any further moved. What you have said 

I will consider. What you have to say 

I will with patience hear ... (i. ii. 164) 

and, 

Macbeth. We will speak further. (i. v. 72) 

In Macbeth the tragic tension is always more powerful than 
in Julius Caesar\ gained, too, within a minimum of space 
either by the most perfect and powerful simplicity, or by the 
complexity of highly-charged, compressed, and pregnant 
metaphoric thought. The effects in the Brutus-theme are so 
much more prolix, and therefore less powerful, especially 
in the matter of blood-imagery, which I notice later. 

Both Brutus and Macbeth meditate in solitude concerning 
the proposed act (I quote only their first words): 

Brutus. It must be by his death : and for my part 
I know no personal cause to spurn at him, 
But for the general . . . (IK i. 10) 

and, 

Macbeth. If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well 
It were done quickly. If the assassination 
Could trammel up the consequence and catch 
With his surcease success ... (i. vii. i) 

Though the intellectual meanings of these soliloquies are 
different, their poetic qualities are similar. Each reflects 
unrest, indecision; in a style of broken and disjointecl, medi 
tative, flashes of thought. They give one the impression that 
the personality of the thinker is momentarily relaxed, letting 
arguments and reasons pass rapidly and automatically across 
the screen of his own mind tor the hundredth time: they 
are merely chaotic shapes and shadows of the active intellect, 
which the contemplating mind watches projected away from 
its centre, trying to understand. They are not vitally imme 
diate and concentrated thought-adventures, like Hamlet's 
*To be or not to be. . .'. They reflect a mind trying to get 
its own motives clear. Brutus' is throughout rhythmically 
uneven and jerky; so is Macbeth's in the first half. Each of 
them is characterized by a quite unexpected and, it would 
seem, untrue method of presenting irrelevant arguments: 
they are both getting their reasons and motives hopelessly 



124 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

wrong. Thus Brutus tells himself that Caesar must be assas 
sinated to avoid the dangers contingent on his nature possibly 
changing after he becomes king. Yet, he says, he has never 
known him let passion master reason. There is^ a hopeless 
confusion: Brutus' strongest method of justifying his act 
is to assert that the Roman ideal of a commonwealth must 
not be shattered by the accession of a king, good or bad. 
Yet, in his confused desire to justify himself, he does not 
do this, but falls back on a quite indefensible sophistry. He 
does not understand himself. Who, at a really testing 
moment, does? Similarly Macbeth, whose conscience revolts 
from the crime, persuades himself that he is a most cold 
blooded villain, and only fears actual and personal punish 
ment. How untrue this is may be apparent from the latter 
half of his soliloquy where he begins to speak with a 
passionate sincerity: then he miserably images to himself 
the excellences of Duncan, as Brutus contemplates those of 
Caesar, and sees that his virtues are as angels trumpet- 
tongued to plead against the crime. He concludes by 
crying: 

I have no spur 

To prick the sides of my intent, save only 

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself 

And falls on the other. (i- vii. 25) 

r He is perfectly aware of the futility of such 'ambition' : yet 
he can find no better name. So, too, Brutus sighs : 

I Lnow no personal cause to spurn at him, 

But for the general . . . (n. i- 1 1) 

And neither is, it seems, quite convinced: though Brutus 
is much nearer peace of mind and clarity of motive than 
Macbeth. But both are in the same kind of confusion. And 
it may be noticed that Brutus' speech in point of complexity 
and condensation of thought and phrase stands out remark 
ably from a play of a lucidity and crystal transparence of 
diction unparalleled in Shakespeare : it has a typical Macbeth 
ring. 

Soon after both these soliloquies the impulse to assassinate 
definitely wins. Both are appealed to on grounds of personal 
pride: Brutus by the paper which Lucius brings him, 



BRUTUS AN0 MACBETH 125 

Macbeth by his wife. They assent at moments of dramatic 
intensity again remarkably similar in their sudden finality: 

Brutus. 'Speak, strike, redress !' Am I entreated 
To speak and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise, 
If the redress will follow, thou receivest 
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus ! (n. i. 55) 

Macbeth likewise reaches decision with a similar finality: 

Macbeth. I am settled and bend up 

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat. 
Away, and mock the time with fairest show. 
False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (i. vii. 79) 

Why does Macbeth thus decide on a course repellant to his 
instinct and unsound to his own reasoning? One of the finest 
interpretative remarks ever made on Macbeth is A. C. 
Bradley's to the effect that Macbeth sets about the murder 
'as an appalling duty*. This is profoundly true. Like Brutus 
he has to be appealed to on grounds of pride: like Brutus, 
he undertakes a terrible and appalling duty. So Macbeth 
counsels his wife to 'mock the time with fairest show*. This 
is a typical Macbeth thought and occurs in slightly different 
forms elsewhere (i. iv. 52; i. v. 65; i. v. 72). At first sight 
it seems far from a Brutus. But we have the same counsel 
given by Brutus : 

O conspiracy, 

Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night, 

When evils are most free ? O, then by day, 

Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough 

To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy; 

Hide it in smiles and afiability . . . (n, i, 77) 

Again, he advises cunning as follows : 

And let out hearts as subtle masters do, 

Stir up their servants to an act of rage, 

And after seem to chide *em. This shall make 

Our purpose necessary and not envious . . . (n. i. 175) 

And finally, 

Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily; 

Let not our looks put on our purposes . . . (n. i. 224) 

The prolix and diffuse expression in Julius Caesar corre 
sponds, as elsewhere, to a more packed and condensed 



I2 6 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

explosive poetry in MacteA. This recurrent thought in both 
plays emphasizes the essential isolation of the hero from 
surrounding human reality : the act to be is an act of darkness 
whose very conception bears the Ishmael stamp of outlawry 
and tends to make the perpetrator a pariah from the ways 
of men. Both Brutus and Macbeth endure this spiritual 
loneliness: it is at the root of their suffering; Loneliness, 
deception, and loss of that daily nurse of anguish, sleep. 

Sleeplessness and nightmare vision are twined with this 
loneliness, this severance of individual consciousness con 
sciousness feverishly awake and aware of its deception and 
isolation due tc^-or urging towards the proposed deed of 
blood. There is insistence on sleep in both plays. Macbeth s 
crime is a hideous murder of sleep: Caesar is waked from 
sleep by Calpurnia's cries in nightmare 'Help, ho! they 
murder Caesar!' (11. ii. 3). Calpurnia has a dream of Caesar s 
statue spouting blood (11. ii. 76). Cinna the poet dreamt 
that he feasted with Caesar and is next mobbed and, we 
suppose, slain. He reminds us of Banquo: 

I dreamt to-night that I did feast with Caesar, 

And things unluckily charge my fantasy; 

I have no will to wander forth of doors, 

Yet something leads me forth. 0* m ' J ) 

Compare Banquo *s : 

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, 

And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers, 

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature 

Gives way to in repose ! (" * 6 ) 

There is a nightmare fear powerful throughout both plays. 
Sleep-imagery is recurrent in the Brutus-theme and in 
Macbeth to an extent paralleled in no other of Shakespeare s 
tragedies. Brutus has not slept since Cassius first instigated 
him against Caesar (n. i. 61). He calls: 

Boy! Lucius! Fast asleep? It is no matter ; 

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber 

Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies, 

Which busy care draws in the brains of men ; 

Therefore thou sleep'st so sound. (" i 32 9> 

Again : 

I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly. (ii. i. 4) 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 127 

And Portia, too, refers to Brutus' sleeplessnes (n. i. 252). 
At the close of the tent-scene in Act IV, it is sleep and the 
drowsy tune of Lucius' instrument that touches for a while 
these latter hours with the faery wand of a gentleness and 
beauty that are remorselessly shattered by the Ghost of 
Caesar the 'evil spirit' of Brutus; the evil that has gripped 
him, symbolized itself in murder, and left him condemned, 
like Macbeth, to *sleep no more*. So, too, the most terrible 
element in the punishment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth 
is a loss of sleep : 

Macbeth. Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more ! 

Macbeth does murder slee{>' the innocent sleep, 

Sleep that knits up the ravelTd sleeve of care, 

The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, 

Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, 

Chief nourisher in life's feast . 
L. Macbeth. What do you mean ? 

Macbftk. Still it cried 'Sleep no more !' to all the house. 

'Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor 

Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.* 

(n. ii. 36) 
Again, later: 

But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, 

Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep 

In the affliction of these terrible dreams 

That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, 

Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, 

Than on the torture of the mind to lie 

In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave; 

After life's fitful xever he sleeps well; 

Treason has done his worst ; nor steel, nor poison, 

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing, 

Can touch him further. (HI. ii. 16) 

There is the dread sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth : Macbeth 
asks the doctor for some sweet oblivious antidote" (v, iii. 43) 
to give rest to her agonized consciousness. One of the worst 
terrors of the Macbeth and Brutus experience is imaged as 
a loss of the sweet curative of sleep. 

In so far as we regard Brutus as the hero of Julius Caesar, 
it will be evident that the falling action continues to present 
similarities to Macbeth. The act of blood looses chaos- and 
destruction on earth. So Antony prophesies : 



128 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

Domestic fury and fierce civil strife 

Shall cumber all the parts of Italy ; 

Blood and destruction shall be so in use 

And dreadful objects so familiar 

That mothers shall but smile when they behold 

Their infants quaiterM with the hands of war; 

Afl pity choked with custom of fell deeds . . . (HI. i. 263) 

Similar is the description by Ross of the horrors alive in 
Scotland : 

Alas, poor country ! 

Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot 

Be callM onr mother, but our grave; where nothing, 

But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile ; 

Where sighs and groans and shrieks that read the air 

Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems 

A modem ecstasy : the dead man's knell 

Is there scarce ask'd for who; and good men's lives 

Expire before the flowers in their caps, 

Dying or ere they sicken. (iv. iii, 164) 

These exaggerated speeches tending away from realism to 
pure poetic symbolism, like the storms and strange behav 
iour of beasts that accompany the central actions empha 
size the essentially chaotic and destructive nature of the 
first murders. Also after the murder each hero experiences a 
purely subjective vision of a ghost. This suggests the con 
tinuance of the divided state of evil : though Brutus may 
continually refer to his high motives, the Ghost of Caesar 
introduces himself as 'Thy evil spirit, Brutus'.* The inward 
division tends to prevent any continued success. Both Brutur 
and Macbeth fail in their schemes not so much because of 
outward events and forces, but through the working of that 
part of their natures which originally forbade murder. 
Macbeth's additional and unnecessary crimes are in reality 
due to his agonized conscience. Had he from the first been 
a hardened and callous murderer, had he undertaken the 
act without any conflict of mind or soul, there was nothing 
to prevent his establishing himself safely on the throne. 
Conscience, which had urged him not to murder Duncan, 
now forces him to murder many others. With Brutus, much 

* That this phrase comes from Plutarch is not relevant here. Shakespeare need not have 
used it. Nor, in any caw, does its legendary survival prove its artistic sterility: rather the 
reverse. 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 129 

the same cause produces the same final result by different 
means : his conscience, or instinct, or whatever it was which 
urged him not to assassinate Caesar, tells him not to risk 
further unnecessary bloodshed, and even to allow Antony's 
oration all in the nature of a peace-offering to his own 
uneasy conscience. The result in both cases determines the 
downfall of the hero. 

At the end Brutus and Macbeth are attacked each by 
two main enemies: the symbols of (i) their original deed of 
destruction, and (ii) their own trammelling and hindering 
conscience. Which has profound significance, since had 
either remained absolutely true to one side of his nature 
there would, probably, have been no failure. They are thus 
tracked down by this dual representation of their originally 
divided selves: it is apparent throughout that the same 
division is at the root of both their original state of evil and 
their eventual failure. So here the conquering forces are to 
be led against Brutus by the young Octavius, nephew of 
Caesar, and Antony, whom Brutus' conscience has indirectly 
placed in power; and against Macbeth by the young Mal 
colm, son of Duncan, and Macduff, whom Macbeth 's 
tortured conscience has roused against him. And before the 
end, each is left more lonely than ever by the death of his 
nearest partner. Brutus finds Cassius dead soon after having 
heard of his wife's suicide. Macbeth, too, loses his wife. Each 
receives such news callously: for, after all, what has this new 
element of loneliness to add to that spiritual isolation that 
has been so long a torment? The death of each is un 
spectacular: 

Brutits. So fare you well at once; for Brutus' tongue 
Hath almost ended his life's history: 
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest 
That have but laboured to attain this hour. (v. v. 39) 

Macbeth meets Macduff and is killed. With each hero the 
sleepless agony of spiritual division finds rest and unity in 
the vaster sleep of death. 

The similarities I have noticed between the Brutus-theme 
and Macbeth are essentially imaginative similarities : only in 
so far as we are submerged in the poetic Duality of the plays 
will this similarity be powerfully and significantly in evi- 



130 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

dence. Therefore it is not strange that on the plane of pure 
poetic symbolism and attendant atmosphere there should be 
more, and striking, parallels. The most obvious forms of 
symbolism in these two plays are (i) storm-symbolism, 
(ii) blood-imagery, and (iii) animal-symbolism. The Brutus 
and Macbeth themes alone in Shakespeare are accompanied 
by these three forms of poetic atmosphere and suggestion 
in full force. They stand for contest, destruction, and dis 
order in the outer world and in the reader's mind, mirroring 
the contest, destruction, and disorder both in the soul of the 
hero and in that element of the poet's intuitive experience 
to which the plays concerned give vivid and concrete 
dramatic form. 

The storm-imagery in the early scenes of Julius Caesar 
is insistent and lurid: 

Casca. Are you not moved when all the sway of earth 
Shakes like a thing unfirm ? O, Cicero, 
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds 
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen 
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam, 
To be exalted with the threatening clouds : 
But never till to-night, never tfll now, 
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. 
Either there is a civil strife in heaven, 
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods, 
Incenses them to send destruction. (i. iii. 3) 

More storm references occur throughout the scene. So, too, 
Lennox speaks to Macbeth on the night of the murder: 

The night has been unruly : where we lay, 

Our chimneys were blown down ; and, as they say, 

Lamentings heard i' the air strange screams of death ; 

And, prophesying with accents terrible 

Of dire combustion and confused events 

New-hatch'd to the woeful time, the obscure bird 

Clamoured the live-long night : some say the earth 

Was feverous, and did shake. (H. iii. 60). 

The storm-imagery in Macbeth^ as, too, the whole imaginative 
atmosphere, is less fiery and bright and scintillating: more 
black, smoky, foul. There is nothing so vividly pictorial as 
the 'fierce fiery warriors' fighting in the heavens above Rome 
(n. ii. 19). But the same order of imagery occurs, reflecting 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH IJI 

the same kind of theme. Macbeth answers to Lennox 
merely: 

'Twas a rough night. 

The storm itself has little meaning for him : it is merely a 
pale reflex for our benefit of the tempest conflicting in 
his soul. Nor is Brutus affected by it it serves as a con 
venient method of illumination : 

The exhalations whizzing in the air 

Give so much light that I may read by them. (n. i. 44) 

The phantasms that make terrible the skies of Rome, and 
drizzle blood upon the Capitol, are nothing to the phantasma 
and hideous dream in his own mind. He is, in fact, ignorant 
of them: they are for us, not for him. But their effect on the 
minor characters, and thence on the reader, is great. It is, 
however, noteworthy that Lady Macbeth and Cassius will 
not be shown to us as struck with any kind of awe : since, 
enduring no inward conflict and chaos of soul, it is inevitable 
that they should be presented as untouched by the symbol 
of conflict. Lady Macbeth is coldly realistic at the time of 
the murder: 

I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. (n. ii- I?) 

Cassius even revels in the storm. To him, it symbolizes not 
the act of destruction, but rather the present state of things 
which he whole-heartedly intends to alter: 

Casca. Cassius, what night is this ! 

Cassius. A very pleasing night to honest men. 
Casca. Who ever knew the heavens menace so? 
Cassius, Those that have known the earth so full of faults. 

For my part, I have walked about the streets, 

Submitting me unto the perilous night, 

And, thus unbraced, Casca, as you see, 

Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone; 

And when the cross-blue lightning seem'd to open 

The breast of heaven, I did present myself 

Even in the aim and very flash of it. (1. i- 4 2 ) 

Cassius, in conspiring against Caesar, is being true to his 
own nature. Suffering no consciousness of evil in himself, 
being, that is, in harmony with himself, he can say that the 
night is pleasing 'to honest men*. The storm has no terrors 



1^2 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

for Cassius, since to him the murder of Caesar is creative, 
not destructive the act is one to restore, not disturb, the 
order of Rome. Now, though the storm effects in Macbeth 
are, as are most other effects, less prolix than in Julius Caesar, 
they are in their impact even more powerful. They are less 
coloured and less varied, but more grim and thick with a 
choking atmosphere of evil. Foul weather, thunder, and 
lightning, accompany the Weird Sisters from the start. But, 
though "imaginatively the whole of the Brutus-theme is on 
a more brilliant, optimistic, almost cheerfully heroic plane 
than the action of Macbeth^ one is only a more concentrated 
and explosive development of the other: though one flower 
be bright and the other dark, the roots are of the same 
species destruction, spiritual division, disharmony and 
anarchy within and without. 

The blood-imagery of Julius Caesar is flagrant and exces 
sive. Images of blood and human wounds abound. Such lines 
as the following are typical : 

mighty Caesar ! dost thou lie so low ? 

Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, 
Shrunk to this little measure ? Fare thee well. 

1 know not, gentlemen, what you intend, 
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank : 
If I myself, there is no hour so fit 

As Caesar's death's hour, nor no instrument 

Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich 

With the most noble blood of all this world. 

I do beseech you, if you bear me hard, 

Now w hilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke. 

Fulfil your pleasure. (in. i. 148) 

There is Brutus' elaborate and rather horrible description 
of the proposed 'carving* of Caesar (n. i. 173); there are the 
'fierce fiery warriors' who 'drizzled blood upon the Capitol' 
(n. ii. 19); there is Caesar's dream of the statue 

Which like a fountain with a hundred spouts 

Did run pure blood. (n. ii. 77) 

'Blood' or 'bloody' occurs seventeen times in in. i. alone. 
Brutus advises the conspirators to stoop and bathe their 
swords and arms in Caesar's blood. Blood is again em 
phasized in Antony's oration blood and Caesar's wounds. 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 133 

The pages of this play are drenched in it. And yet the whole 
of the blood-imagery here does not hold a quarter of the 
terror and the misery of the blood-speeches in Macbeth ; of 
Lady Macbeth's 

Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in 
him? (v. i. 42) 

or Angus* 

Now does he feel 
His secret murders sticking on his hands (v. ii. 16) 

terrible bloodless metaphor! or of Macbeth's 

What hands are these ? Ha ! they pluck out mine eyes. 

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood 

Clean from my hand ? No, this my hand will rather 

The multitudinous seas incarnadine, 

Making the green one red. (11. ii. 60) 

In comparison with such lines those in Julius Caesar show 
more of a blood-zest than a blood-horror: just as the storm 
in Julius Caesar is lurid, fiery, bizarre, and picturesque a 
kind of tragic fireworks ; whereas the atmosphere of Macbeth 
is gloomy, black, and fearful. But in both plays the essen 
tially murderous and destructive nature of the action is 
emphasized by recurrent blood-imagery. 

And, finally, there is the animal-symbolism. Many of the 
creatures mentioned are either unnatural in form or un 
natural in behaviour. They are creatures suggestive of a 
disjointed and disorganized state, creatures of unnatural 
disorder, reflecting the unnatural and disorderly acts of 
Brutus and Macbeth: for it is, in the present era, now that 
'human statute 1 has 'purged the general weal' (Macbeth^ 
m. iv. 76), as natural to man to aim at harmony and order 
both without and within the individual 'state of man* as it 
is to birds and beasts to follow the instinctive laws of their 
kind. Hence the murder of Caesar is heralded by varied 
unnatural phenomena. Not only do *birds and beasts 1 break 
from all habits of their 'quality and kind' (i. iii. 64); all laws 
of nature are interrupted : 

Case a . A common slave you know him well by ght 
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn 
Like twenty torches join'd, and yet hi$ hand, 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

Not sensible of fire, remain'd unscorch'd. 

Besides I ha' not since put up my sword 

Against the Capitol I met a lion, 

Who glared upon me and went surly by, 

Without annoying me. 0- i" 1 5) 

He tells how 

Men all in fire walk up and down the streets. 

And yesterday the bird of night did sit 

Even at noon-day upon the market place, 

Hooting and shrieking. (i. iii. 2 5) 

A lioness 'hath whelped in the streets' (n. ii. 1 7). Graves have 
opened, and the dead walk forth shrieking (n. ii. 18, 24). 
AH things seem to have changed 

from their ordinance 

Their natures and preformed faculties 

To monstrous quality. 0- & 66) 

There is no heart within the sacrificial offering (ii. ii 40). 
We are confronted with things apparently beyond the work 
ings of causality. In Julius Caesar all order is inverted: 'old 
men fool and children calculate' fi. iii. 65), And all this 
shadows vaguely the terrors and dangers of an act against 
the symbol of order and authority: an act of destruction 
directed against the state, a rough tearing of the woven fabric 
of society and order and peace. Now the action of Macbeth 
is accompanied by similar extraordinary manifestations. Not 
only have we the familiars of the Weird Sisters and their 
references to animals of unnatural form as 'the rat without 
a tail' 1 and the numerous evil forms of life mentioned in the 
cauldron incantation scene, but, as in Julius Caesar^ weird 
phenomena in the animal and stellar worlds strike fear and 
wonder into the minds of men. In both plays, the com 
parison of these outward forms to the cenfral act of dis 
order is clearly pointed. Cassius tells us : 

And the complexion of the element 

In favour* s like the work we have in hand, 

Most bloody, fiery, and most terrible. (i. Hi. 128) 

Calpurnia knows that 'when beggars die there are no comets 
seen" (ii. ii. 30). In Macbeth we are told clearly, in a short 

The fact that thi* wa* a popular superstition in no *ay lessens its imaginative value 
in Mvlxtk. 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH 135 

scene of choric commentary, that these strange events reflect 
the essential unnaturalness of murder that is, the essential 
disorderliness of destruction : and this reflects or is reflected 
in the unnatural disharmony in Macbeth's souL Ross and 
an Old Man talk: 

Old Man. Three score and ten I can remember well : 

Within the volume of which time I have seen 

Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night 

Hath trifled former knowings. 
Ross. Ah, good father, 

Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act, 

Threaten his bloody stage : by the clock, 'tis day, 

And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp; 

Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame, 

That darkness does the face of earth entomb, 

When living light should kiss it ? 
Old Man. 'Tis unnatural, 

Even like the deed that 's done. On Tuesday last, 

A falcon, towering in her pride of place, 

Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kUTd. 
Ross. And Duncan's horses a thing most strange and certain 

Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, 

Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalk, flung out, 

Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make 

War with mankind. 

Old Man. Tis said they eat each other. 

Ross. They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes 

That look'd upon't. (11. hr. i) 

Again the insistence on disorder: the suspension and inter 
ruption of natural laws corresponding to the unlawful and 
so unnatural deed. Earlier in the play Lennox told us 
that: 

. . . prophesying with accents terrible 

Of dire combustion and confused events 

New-hatch*d to the woeful time, the obscure bird 

Clamoured the live-long night ... (n. iii. 62) 

like 'the bird of night* in Julius Caesar^ "hooting and 
shrieking' (i. iii. 26) in the market-place. 

Such portents are harbingers of 'confused events', of 
disorder. So Macbeth, who has, like Brutus, 'let slip the 
dogs of war' within himself, but determines not to return 
but *go o'er', tells the Weird Sisters that he must be satisfied 



j j6 BRUTUS AND MACBETH 

whatever confusion and disorder follow: again, an emphasis 
on chaos, disorder, 'confused events' : 

I conjure j-ou, by that which you profess, 

Howe'er you come to know it, answer me : 

Though von untie the winds and let them fight 

Against the churches; though the yesty waves 

Confound and swallow navigation up; 

Though bladcd corn be lodged and trees blown doun ; 

Though castles topple on their warders' heads; 

Though palaces and pyramids do slope 

Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure 

Of nature's germens tumble all together, 

Even till destruction sicken ; answer me 

To what I ask you. ( 1V - ' 5) 

These are the forces of destruction and disorder Macbeth 
must now loose against himself. This speech is followed 
by the three 'apparitions' ; and we see how the interruption 
of natural laws itself recoils on him Birnam Wood is to 
move to Dunsinane, or appear to him to do so ; and MacdurF, 
not 'born of woman ', will be the appointed angel of revenge. 
Brutus also finds he has released forces against himself and 
his party. Antony's prophecy is fulfilled: 

. . . Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, 

With Ate by his side, come hot from Hell, 

Shall in these confines, with a monarch's voice, 

Cry 'Havoc !' and let slip the dogs of war. (HI. i. 270) 

In both plays it is seen that good does not come from evil; 
order from disorder; harmony from conflict. But a new good 
must take the place of the old, a new order, like the old, 
must come back to Rome and Scotland; the new harmony 
will be as the old harmony that was shattered by the rash 
act of conflict. 

The poetic symbolism and imaginative atmosphere ot 
these two plays tend to mirror the spiritual significance. The 
outer conflict is a symbol of an inner conflict. The unnatural 
phenomena of earth and sky show a disorder in things: so, 
too, is there disorder in the souls or minds of Brutus 
and Macbeth. An exact reference of these disorder-symbols 
to the mental experience of the protagonists is most impor 
tant. I shall next attempt to show why the disorder-symbols of 
Julius Caesar must be related to Brutus, and not elsewhere. 



BRUTUS AND MACBETH IJ7 

The horror of Caesar's assassination is apparent most 
strongly to two people in the play: Brutus and Antony. Its 
necessity is apparent most strongly to Brutus and Cassius, 
Cassius and Antony are thus sure of themselves, and enjoy 
a oneness of vision, which results in clear and concise action. 
To neither does the act present a twofold and agonizingly 
inconsistent appearance. But it is exactly this incertitude, 
this wavering between two aspects of reality, which is at 
the root of disorder. 1 It is this which torments Brutus; it 
is this twofold fated necessity and yet rational absurdity of 
Caesar's assassination which the play, as a whole, gives 
the reader; it is this* consciousness of the wrongness and 
unnaturalness of destruction in a mind that is yet involved 
automatically and half-willingly in that very destruction 
which forms the poetic experience of Brutus and Macbeth, 
and the poetic experience of the poet which created, and that 
in the reader which is induced by, the attendant symbolism 
of storm, blood, and chaos in nature. For the poet and the 
reader, like Brutus, see both sides of the question, and suffer 
a division of sympathy. And it is only in respect of this 
division of sympathy in the beholder that the murders can 
ultimately be considered unnatural. That they are 'unnatural' 
in themselves and absolutely cannot ultimately be asserted : 
they happened and were therefore natural. Absolute disorder 
is inconceivable. So though to Antony the murder is purely 
hateful, unnecessary and in a sense unnatural, and though 
he may prophesy external disorder, he is in no doubt as to 
his own course, he endures no division of sympathy, no 
unnatural experience, no spiritual conflict, and so, not suf 
fering inward disorder, he promptly expresses himself by 
recreating 'order*. The murder of Caesar is natural to 
Antony in that it falls readily into his scheme of thought: 
he therefore knows just what to do about it. But Brutus, 
like the reader, is twined in the meshes of the immediately 
actual and impending and so in one sense perfectly natural 

Cf. Bergson's contention (to which I am indebted) that the concept of disorder is the 
result of a mind oscillating between /too kinds of order. In writing of 'orders' he says : 'There 
is not fiwt the incoherent, then the geometrical, then the vital? there it only the geometrical 
and the vital and thf, by a swaying of the mind between them, the idea of the incoherent' 
(Crtati'Vf Evolutit,^ translated A. Mitchell, p. 049). This appear* to me to have relevance 
to the Brutui-theme and Machttk\ both of which turn on the idea of 'disorder' and that 
of a mind suffering division and conflict. 



VII 

MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC 
OF EVIL 



TljfdCBETHis Shakespeare's most profound and 
/r?visiQn.ofeviL In the ghost and death themes of Hamlet 
we have something of the same quality; in the Brutus-theme 
of Julius Caesar we have an exactly analogous rhythm of 
spiritual experience; in Richard III 'we have a parallel history 
of an individual's crime. In Macbeth all this, and the many 
other isolated poetic units of similar quality throughout 
Shakespeare, receive a final, perfected form. Therefore 
analysis of Macbeth is of profound value: but it is not easy. 
Much of Hamlet, and the Troilus-Othello-Lear succession 
culminating in Timon of Athens, can be regarded as repre 
sentations of the 'hate-theme'. We are there faced by man's 
afspiring nature, unsatiated of its desire among the frailties 
and inconsistencies of its world. They thus point us to good, 
not evil, and their very gloom of denial is the shadow of a 
great assertion. They thus lend themselves to interpretation 
in terms of human thought, and their evil can be regarded 
as a negation of man's positive longing. In Macbeth we find 
notjfrloqm, but blackness : the evil is not relative,~but : absolute. 
In point of imaginative profundity Macbeth is comparable 
alone to Antony and Cleopatra. There we have a fiery vision 
of a paradisal consciousness; here the murk and nightmare 
torment of a conscious hell. This evil, being^absojute_and 
therefore alien to man, is in essence shown as inhuman and 
supernatural, and is thus most difficult of location in any 
philosophical scheme. Macbeth is, fantastical andimaginajive 
beyond other tragedies. Difficulty is increased by that im 
plicit blurring of effects, that palling darkness, that overcasts 
plot, technique, style. The persons of the play are themselves 
groping. Yet we are left with an overpowering knowledge 
of suffocating, conquering evil, and fixed by the basilisk eye 
of a nameless terror. The nature of this evil will be the 
subject of my essay. 



140 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 14! 

It is dangerous to abstract the personal history of the 
protagonist from his environment as a basis for interpreta 
tion. The main theme is not primarily differentiated from 
that of the important subsidiary persons and cannot stand 
alone. Rather there is a similarity, and the evil in Banquo, 
Macduff, Malcolm, and the enveloping atmosphere of the 
play, all forms so many steps by which we may approach and 
understand the titanic evil which grips the two protagonists. 
The Macbeth universe is woven in a texture of a single 
pattern. The whole play is one swift act of the poet's mind, 
and as such must be interpreted, since the technique con 
fronts us not with separated integers of 'character' or inci 
dent, but with a molten welding of thought with thought, 
event with event. There is an interpenetrating quality that 
subdues all to itself. Therefore I shall start by noticing some 
of the more important elements in this total imaginative 
effect, and thence I shall pass to the more purely human 
element. The story and action of the play alone will not carry 
us far. Here the logic of imaginative correspondence is more 
significant and more exact than the logic of plot. 

Macbeth is a desolate and dark universe where all Is 
befogged, baffled, constricted by the evil. Probably in no 
play of Shakespeare are so many questions asked. It opens 
with *When shall we three meet again?' and 'Where the 
place?' (i. i. i and 6). The second scene starts with, *What 
bloody man is that?* (i. ii. i), and throughout it questions 
are asked of the Sergeant and Ross. This is followed by: 

First IPitck. Where hast thoa been, sister? 

Second Witch. Killing swine. 

First mtck. Sister, where thoa? (i. iii. i) 

And Banquo's first words on entering are: "How far is't 
called to Forres? What are these . . . ?' (i. iii. 39). Questions 
succeed each other quickly throughout this scene. Amaze- 
ment and mystery are in the play from the start, and are 
reflected in continual questions there are those of 
Duncan to Malcolm in i. iv, and of Lady Macbeth to 
the Messenger and then to her lord in i. v. They con 
tinue throughout the play. In i. vii they are tense and 
powerful: 



142 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

Macbeth. How now I What news ? 

i. Mac&t*. He ha& almost supp'd : why hare you left the chamber? 

Macbeth. Hath he asled forme? .. 

i. Ma:6etA. Know you not he has? (i. VH. 28) 

This scene bristles with them. At the climax of the murder 
thev come again, short stabs of fear: 'Didst thou not hear 
a noise: Did not you speak ? When ? Now. As I 
descended? . . .' (n. 'ii. 16). Some of the finest and most 
heart-rendinu passages are in the form of questions: : 'But 
wherefore could I not pronounce Axnenr' and, VVill ail 
<*reat Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my 
hand ?' (n. H. 32; n. ii. 61). The scene of the murder and 
that of its discover)' form a series of questions. To continue 
the list in detail would be more tedious than difficult: to 
quote a few there are the amazed questions of the guests 
and Lady Macbeth at the Banquet (in. iii); Macbeth's con 
tinual questioning of the Weird Sisters in the Cauldron 
scene (iv. i); thoseof MacdufFs son to Lady Macduft (iv. n) ; 
of Macduff to Ross who brings him news of his family s 
slaughter (iv. iii); of the Doctor to the Gentlewoman (v, i). 
These questions are threads in the fabric of mystery and 
doubt which haunts us in Macbeth. All the persons arejn 
doubt, baffled, Duncan is baffled at the treachery of a man 
he trusted (i. iv. 1 1), Newcomers strike amaze: 

What a haste looks through his ejes ! So should he look 

That seems to speak things strange. 0- u- 47) 

Surprise is continual. Macbeth does not understand how 
he can be Thane of Cawdor (i. iii. 108). Lady Macbeth is 
startled at the news of Duncan's visit (i. v. 32); Duncan 
at the fact of Macbeth's arrival before himself (i. vi. 20). 
There is the general amazement at the murder; of Lennox, 
Ross, and the Old Man at the strange happenings in earth 
and heaven on the night of the murder (n, iii. 60-7; 
n. iv. i~2o). Banquo and Fleance are unsure of the hour 
(n, i. 1-4). No one is sure of MacdufFs mysterious move 
ments. Lady Macbeth is baffled by Macbeth's enigmatic 
hints as to the 'deed of dreadful note* (in. ii. 44)- The two 
murderers are not certain as to who has wronged them, 
Macbeth or Banquo (in. i. 76-9); they do not understand 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 143 

the advent of the 'third murderer* (in. iii. i). Ross and 
Lady MacdufF are at a loss as to Macduff's flight, and 
warning is brought to Lady Macduff by a mysterious 
messenger who 'is not to her known* (iv. ii. 63). Malcolm 
suspects MacdufF, and there is a long dialogue due to his 
'doubts' (iv. iii); and in the same scene Malcolm recognizes 
Ross as his countryman yet strangely 'knows him not* 
(iv. iii. 1 60). As the atmosphere brightens at the end of the 
play, the contrast is aptly marked by reference to the stroke 
of action which will finally dispel the fog of insecurity: 

The time approaches 

That will with due decision make us know 
What we shall say we have and what we owe. 
Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate, 
But certain issues strokes must arbitrate. (v. iv. 17) 

This blurring and lack of certainty is increased by the 
heavy proportion of second-hand or vague knowledge re 
ported during the play's progress. We have the two accounts 
of tlie "fighting, by the Sergeant and Ross: but the whole 
matter ~of the rebellion is vague to us. Later, Ross brings 
news to Macbeth of his new honours, confessing that he 
'knows not* the exact crimes of the former Thane of Cawdor 
(i. iii. 1 1 1 1 6). Malcolm has spoken with 'one that saw him 
die* (i. iv. 4). Lady Macbeth hears amazedly of the Weird 
Sisters 1 prophecy by letter (i. v.). Macbeth describes the voice 
that bade him 'sleep no more* (u. ii. 36) and the dead body 
of Duncan (n. iii. 1 1 8). People are continually receiving the 
latest news from each other, the climax being Macduff's 
hearing of his family's slaughter (ii. iv; HI. vi; iv. iii. 161- 
239). Rumours are alive throughout: 

Macbeth. How say'st thou that Macduff denies his person 

At our great bidding ? 

L. Macbeth. Did you send to him, Sir ? 

Macbeth. I hear it by the way ; but I will send. (in. iv. 1 28) 

We hear more rumours of MacdufF in the dialogue between 
Lennox and the Lord in in. vi. There is the 'galloping of 
horses 1 with the mysterious *two or three' who bring word 
of Macduff's flight (iv. i. 141). It is a world of rumours 
and fears: 



144 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

fins. I <Jare not speak much further; 

But cruel are the times, when we arc traitors 
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumour 
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear, 
But float upon a wild and violent sea mm 

Each way and move. (tv.n. 17) 

Ross has heard a 'rumour* of a rise in Scotland against 
Macbeth (iv. iii. i8z)'. In a hushed voice the Gentlewoman 
describes Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking to the Doctor 
(v i.V and the Doctor says he has 'heard something of 
Macbeth's 'royal preparation' (v. iii. 57-8). Siward learns 
no other' but that Macbeth is defending his castle (v. iv. 9), 
and Lady Macbeth, 'as 'tis thought', commits suicide 
f v. vii. 99). These are but a few random instances: questions, 
rumours, startling news, and uncertainties are everywhere. 
From the time when Banquo asks 'How far is't called to 
Forces?' (i. iii. 39) until Siward's 'What wood is this before 
us?' (v. iv. 3) we are watching persons lost, mazed. 1 They 
do not understand themselves even : 

Utlcdm, Why do we hold our tongues 

That most may claim this argument for ours ? (" 111. r 26) 

The persons of the drama can say truly, with Ross, 'we . . . 
do not know ourselves* (iv. ii. 19). We too, who read, are in 
doubt often. Action here is illogical. Why does Macbeth not 
know of Cawdor's treachery? Why does Lady Macbeth 
faint? Why do the King's sons flee to different countries 
when a whole nation is ready in their support? Why does 
Macduff move so darkly mysterious in the background 
and leave his family to certain death? Who is the Third 
Murderer? And, finally, why does Macbeth murder Duncan ? 
All this builds a strong sense of mystery and irrationality 
within us. We, too, grope in the stifling dark, and suffer 
from doubt and insecurity. 

Darkness permeates the play. The greater part of the 
action takes place in the murk of night It is unnecessary to 
detail more than a few of the numerous references to dark 
ness. Lady Macbeth prays: 

O Colin StiU'* Sbfcip** Mj*V Ply: A Snufy of The T*pt (Cecil Wmtg 
to /wriMd and reittticd a. T** T*m*te* ?***** Nicholson afld Wat**, 1936). In h 
interpretation, the Court Party are related to the maze in anocnt ntul; and in my inter 
pretation of Tke Ttmpai, I roughly equate the Antonio and Sebastian theme with Mod** . 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 145 

Come, thick night, 

And pall thee in the dunncst smoke of Hell, 
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, 
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark 
To cry, Hold! Hold! (i. v. 51) 

And Macbeth: 

Stars, hide your fires. 

Let not light see my black and deep desires ; 
The eye wink at the hand ; yet let that be, 
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (i. iv. 50) 

During the play. 'light thickens' (in. ii. 50), the 'travelling 
lamp* is 'strangled' (n. iv. 7), there is husbandry in heaven* 
(u. i. 4). This is typical : 

Now spurs the lated traveller apace 

To gain the timely inn. (HI. Hi. 6) 

Now this world of doubts and darkness gives birth to strange 
and hideous creatures. Vivid animal disorder-symbolism is 
recurrent in the play and the animals mentioned are for the 
most part of fierce, ugly, or ill-omened significance. We hear 
of 'the Hyrcan tiger' and the 'armed rhinoceros' (in. iv. 101), 
the 'rugged Russian bear* (in. iv. 100); the wolf, 'whose 
howl's his watch' (u. i, 54); the raven who croaks the en 
trance of Duncan under Lady Macbeth's battlements (i. v. 
39); the owl, 'fatal bellman who gives the stern 'st good 
night* (u. ii. 4). There are 'maggot-pies and choughs and 
rooks' (HI. iv. 125), and 

. . . hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, 

Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves . . . (HI. i. 93) 

We have the bat and his 'cloistered flight', the 'shard-bornl 
beetle', the crow making wing to the 'rooky wood*; 'night's 
black agents* rouse to their preys; Macbeth has 'scotch'd 
the snake, not killed it'; his mind Is full of 'scorpions' 
(HI. ii. 1353)- All this suggests life threatening, ill-omened, 
hideous: and it culminates in the holocaust of filth prepared 
by the Weird Sisters in the Cauldron scene. But not only 
are animals of unpleasant suggestion here present : we have 
animals, like men, irrational and amazing in their acts. A 
falcon is attacked and killed by a 'mousing owP, and Dun- 



146 MJCBfTff AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

can's horses eat each other (11. iv. 11-18). There is a 
prodigious and ghastly tempest, with 'screams of death'; the 
owl clamoured through the night; the earth itself shook 
(n. iii. 60-7). We are thus aware of a hideous abnormality 
in this world; and again we feel its irrationality and mystery. 
In proportion as we let ourselves be receptive to the impact 
of all these suggestions we shall be strongly aware of the 
essential fearsomeness of this universe. 

We are confronted by mystery, darkness, abnormality, 
hideousness: and therefore by fear. The word 'fear] is 
ubiquitous. All may be unified as symbols of this emotion. 
Fear is predominant. Everyone is afraid. There is scarcely 
a person in the play who does not feel and voice at some 
time a sickening, nameless terror. The impact of the play 
is thus exactly analogous to nightmare, to which state there 
are many references : 

Now o'er the one-half world, 
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse 
The curtain'd sleep . . . (" ' 49> 

Banquo cries: 

Merciful powers, 

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature 
Gives way to in repose ! (" i- 7) 

Banquo has dreamed of 'the three weird sisters' (n. i. 20), 
who are thus associated with a nightmare reality. There are 
those who cried in their sleep, and said their prayers after 
(n. ii. 24). Macbeth may 'sleep no more' (n. ii. 44); sleep, 
balm of hurt minds, 'shall neither night nor day hang upon 
his pent-house lid* (i. iii. 19) if we may transfer the 
reference. He and his wife are condemned to live 

in the affliction of these terrible dreams 
That shake us nightly. ('" ii- 18) 

The central act of the play is a hideous murder of sleep. 
Finally, we have the extreme agony of sleep-consciousness 
depicted in Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking. Nor are there- 
dreams only: the narrow gulf between nightmare and the 
abnormal actuality of the Macbeth universe itself of night 
mare quality is bridged by phantasies and ghosts: the 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHVSIC OF EVIL 14*? 

dagger of Macbeth 's mind, the Ghost of Banquo, the 
Apparitions, the Vision of Scottish Kings, culminating in 
the three Weird Sisters. There is no nearer equivalent, in 
the experience of a normal mind, to the poetic quality of 
Macbeth than the consciousness of nightmare or delirium. 
That is why life is here a 'tale told by an idiot 1 (v. v. 27), 
a 'fitful fever* after which the dead 'sleep weir (in.ii. 23); 
why the earth itself is 'feverous* (n. iii. 67). The Weird 
Sisters are nightmare actualized; Macbeth's crime night 
mare projected into action. Therefore this world is unknow 
able, hideous, disorderly, and irrational. The very style of 
the play has a mesmeric, nightmare quality, for in that dream- 
consciousness, hateful though it be, there is a nervous 
tension, a vivid sense of profound significance, an excep 
tionally rich apprehension of reality electrifying the mind : 
one is in touch with absolute evil, which, being absolute, 
has a satanic beauty, a hideous, serpent-like grace and 
attraction, drawing, paralysing^ This quality is in the poetic 
style j the language is tense, nervous, insubstantial, without 
anything oX the : visual "clarity of Othello, or the massive 
solemnity of Timon of Athens. The poetic effect of the whole, 
though black with an inhuman abysm of darkness, is yet 
shot through and streaked with vivid colour, with horrors 
that hold a mesmeric attraction even while they repel; and 
things of brightness that intensify the enveloping murk. 
Xhere is constant refereOjp Woojd. Macbeth and Banquo 
'bathe in reeking, .wounds* (i. ii^o) in the fight reported 
by the 'bloody* Sergeant; Macbeth's sword 'smoked wjth 
bloody execution* (i. ii. 18); there is the blood on Macbeth's 
Jiands, and on Lady Macbeth *s after she has 'smeared* the 
sleeping grooms with it (n. n). There is the description of 
Duncan's body, 'his silver skin lac*d with his golden blood' 
(n. iii. 1 1 8). There is blood on the face of the Murderer 
who comes to tell of Banquo's 'trenched gashes* (in. iv. 27); 
the 'gory locks' (m. iv. 51) of the 'blood-bolter'd* Banquo; 
the 'bloody child* Apparition; the blood-nightmare of Lady 
Macbeth's sleep-walking. But though blood-imagery is rich, 
there is no brilliance in it; rather a sickly smear. Yet there 
is brilliance in the jiw^xnagery^ the thunder and lightning 
which accompanies the Weird Sisters; the fire of the caul- 



148 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

dron; the green glint of the spectra! dagger; the glaring 
eyes which hold 'no speculation' of Banquo's Ghost, the 
insubstantial sheen of the three Apparitions, the ghastly 
pageant of kings unborn. 

Mstcbcth has the poetry of intensity: intense darkness shot 
with the varied intensity of pure light or pure colour. In^the 
same way the moral darkness is shot with imagery of bright 
purity and virtue. There is 'the temple-haunting martlet' 
(i. vi. 4} to contrast with evil creatures. We have the early 




lovely 

upon her knees than on her feet, died every day she lived' 
(rv. iii. no); the prayer of Lennox for *some holy angel* 
(in. vi. 45) to fly to England's court for saving help; 
Macbeth 's agonized vision of a starry good, of 'Heaven's 
cherubim' horsed in air, and Pity like a babe; those who 
pray that God may bless them in their fevered dream; above 
all, Malcolm's description of England's holy King, health- 
giver and God-elect who, unlike Macbeth, has power over 
'the evil', in whose court Malcolm borrows 'grace' to combat 
the nightmare evil of his own land: 
Meittlm. Comes the King forth, I pray 700 ? 

Dtcttr. Ay y r; there are a crew of wretched souls 

That stay his cure: their malady- convinces 

The great assay of art; but at his touch 

Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand 

They presently amend- 

Ma/f*/*r. 1 thank you, doctor, 

M*cd*ff. What's the disease he means ? 
Mttfo/m. ^ Tis call'd the evil. 

A most miraculous work in this good king; 

Which often, since my here-remain in England, 

I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven, 

Himself best knows : but strangely visited people, 

All swob and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye, 

The mere despair of surgery, he cures, 

Hanging a golden stamp about their necks, 

Put on with holy prayers : and 'tis spoken, 

To the succeeding royalty he leaves 

like healing benediction. With this strange virtue, 

He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy, 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 149 

And sundry blessings hang about his throne, 

That speak him full of grace. (IT. iii. 140} 

This description is spoken just before Ross enters with the 
shattering narration of Macbeth's most dastardly and ruinous 
crime. The contrast at this instant is vivid and pregnant. 
The King of England is thus full of supernatural 'grace'. In 
Macbeth this supernatural grace is set beside the super 
natural evil. Against such grace Macbeth first struck the 
blow of evil. Duncan was 'gracious* (m. i. 66); at his death 
'renown and grace is dead* (u. iii. 101). By 'the grace of 
Grace' (y. vii. 101) alone Malcolm will restore health 1 to 
Scotland. The murk, indeed, thins towards the end. Bright 
daylight dawns and the green leaves of Birnam came against 
Macbeth. A world climbs out of its darkness, and in the 
dawn that panorama below is a thing of nightmare delusion. 
The 'sovereign flower' (v. ii. 30) is bright-dewed in the 
bright dawn, and the murk melts into the mists of morning: 
the Child is crowned, the Tree of Life in his hand. 
I have indicated something of the i 



f^lia.~play. It is a world shaken "By Tears and. scruples' 
n. iii. 136). Ijjgta, world >where 'nothing is but what is not* 



, 

(i. iii. 141), where 'fair is foul and jEouLis Hair 1 (i. i. n). 
I have emphasized tw^p#iplemaatary donftnte : (i) the 
doub&, uncertainties, irrationalities; (ii) thejb^rrors, the 
dark> thcJp^Qmalities . These two elements repel respec 
tively the intellect and the heart of man. And, since the 
contemplating mind is thus powerfully unified in its imme 
diate antagonism, our reaction holds the positive and tense 
fear that succeeds nightmare, wherein there is an experience 
of something at once insubstantial and unreal to the under 
standing and appallingly horrible to the feelings: this is the 
evil of Macbeth. In this equal repulsion of the dual attributes 
of the mind a state of singleness and harmony is induced in 
the recipient, and it is in respect of this that Macbeth forces 
us to a consciousness more exquisitely unified and sensitive 
than any of the great tragedies but its polar opposite, Antony 
and Cleopatra. This is how the Macbeth universe presents 

* The 'evil* of Macbttk b *ymboliz<ai in a nation's skknew. See v. ii. 27-91 T - "* 49~S 6 - 
Tbe spiritual evil of Macbeth is directly related to the bodUy evil of blood-dertractioc and 
sidc&eM in toe comTnnin ty. 



150 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

to us an experience of absolute evil. Now, these two pecu 
liarities of the whole play will be found also in the purely 
human element. The two main characteristics of Macbeth's 
temptation are (i) ignorance of his own motive, and (ii) horror 
of the deed to which he is being driven. Fear is the primary 
emotion of the Macbeth universe: fear is at the root of 
Macbeth's crime. I shall next notice the nature of those 
human events, actions, experiences to which the atmosphere 
of unreality and terror bears intimate relation. 

The action of the plaj turns on a deed of disorder. 
Following the disorderly rebellion which prologues the 
action we have Macbeth's crinie, and the disorder which it 
creates:" """" "*" 

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece ! 

Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope 

The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence 

The life o' the building. (11. iii. 72) 

The murder of Duncan and its results are essentially things 
of confusion and disorder, an interruption of the even tenour 
of human nature, and are thus related to the disorder-symbols 
and instances of unnatural behaviour in man or animal or 
element throughout the play. The evil of atmospheric effect 
thus interpenetrates the evil of individual persons. It has so 
firm a grip on this world that it fastens not only on the pro 
tagonists, but on subsidiary persons too. This point I shall 
notice before passing to the themes of Macbeth and his wife. 
Many minor persons are definitely related to evil: the two 
or three Murderers, the trai tors, Cawdor and Macdonald, 
the drunken porter, doing duty at the gate of Hell. But the 
major ones too, who are conceived partly as contrasts to 
Macbeth and his wife, nevertheless succumb to the evil 
downpressing on the Macbeth universe. Jk&quo is early 
involved. Returning with Macbeth from. a bloody war, he 
meets the three Weird Sisters* We may imagine that the 
latter are related to the bloodshed of battle, and that they 
have waited until after 'the hurly-burly's done* (i. i. 3) to 
instigate a continuance of blood-lust in the two generals. 
We must observe that the two generals' feats of arms are 
described as acts of unprecedented ferocity: 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, 

Or memorize another Golgotha, 

I cannot tell. (i.ii.4o) 

This campaign strikes amaze into men. War is here a thing 
of blood, not romance, Ross addresses Macbeth: 

Nothing afeard of what thyself did make, 

Strange images of death. ' (i. Hi. 96) 

Macbeth 's sword 'smoked with bloody execution* (i, ii. 1 8). 
The^^phasis is important. The late wine of blood-destruc 
tion focuses the inward eyes of these two to the reality of the 
sisters of blood and evil, and they in turn urge Macbeth to 
add to those 'strange images of death' the 'great doom's 
image' (n. iii. 85) of a murdered and sainted king. This 
knowledge of evil implicit in his meeting with the three 
Weird Sisters Banquo keeps to himself, and it is a bond of 
evil between him and Macbeth. It is this that troubles him 
on the night of the murder, planting a nightmare of unrest 
in his mind: *the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in 
repose/ He feels the typical Macbeth guilt: *a heavy sum 
mons lies like lead' upon him (n. i. 6). He is enmeshed in 
Macbeth's horror, and, after the coronation, keeps the guilty 
secret, and lays to his heart a guilty hope. Banquo is thus 
involved. So also is Macduff. His' cruel desertion of his 
family is emphasized: 

L. Macduff. His flight was madness; when our actions do not, 

Our fears do make us traitors. 
Ross. You fcnow not 

Whether it was his wisdom or his fear. 
L. Macduff. Wisdom \ to leave his wife, to leave his babes, 

His mansion and his titles in a place 

From whence himself does flee? (iv. ii. 3) 

For this, or for some nameless reason, Macduff knows he 
bears some responsibility for his dear ones' death : 

Sinful Macduff, 

They were all struck for thee ! Naught that I am, 
Not for their own demerits, but for mine, 
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now ! 

(IY. iii. 223) 

All the persons seem to share some guilt of the down-pressing 
enveloping evil. Even Malcolm is forced to repeat crimes on 



152 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

himself. He catalogues every possible sin, and accuses him 
self of all Whatever be his reasons, his doing so yet remains 
part of the integral humanism of this play. The pressure of 
evil is not relaxed till the end. Not that the persons are 'bad 
characters'. They are not 'characters' at all, in the proper use 
of the word. They are but vaguely individualized, and more 
remarkable for similarity than difference. All the persons are 
primarily just this: men' paralysed by fear and a sense of evil 
in and outside themselves. They lack will-power: that con 
cept finds no place here. Neither we, nor they, know of what 
exactly they are guilty : yet they feel guilt. 

So, too, with Lady Macbeth. She is not merely a woman 
of strong will : she is a woman possessed possessed of evil 
passion. No 'will-power' on earth would account for her 
dread invocation : 

Come, you spirits 

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 

And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full 

Of direst cruelty! 0- v. 41) 

This speech, addressed to the 'murdering ministers' who 
'in their sightless substances wait on nature's mischief is 
demonic in intensity and passion. It is inhuman as though 
the woman were controlled by an evil something which 
masters her, mind and soul. It is mysterious, fearsome, yet 
fascinating: like all else here, it is a nightmare thing of evil. 
Whatever it be it leaves her a pure woman, with a woman's 
frailty, as soon as ever its horrible work is done. She faints 
at Macbeth *s description of Duncan's body. As her husband 
grows rich in crime, her significance dwindles: she is left 
shattered, a human wreck who mutters over again in sleep 
the hideous memories of her former satanic hour of pride. 
To interpret the figure of Lady Macbeth in terms of 
'ambition' and VilP is, indeed, a futile commentary. The 
scope and sweep of her evil passion is a thing tremendous, 
irresistible, ultimate. She is an embodiment for one mighty 
hour of evil absolute and extreme. 1 

The central human theme the temptation and crime of 
Macbeth: is, however, more easy of analysis. The crucial 

1 lago is not absolutely evil in this sense. He is too purely intellectual to antagonize oar 
emotions powerfully. 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL I 3 

speech runs as follows: 

Why do I yield to that suggestion, 

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, 

And makes my seated heart knock at my ribs 

Against the use of nature? Present fears 

Are less than horrible imaginings. 

My thought whose murder yet is but fantastical 

Shakes so my single state of man that function 

Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is 

But what is not. (i. iii. 1 34) 

These lines, spoken when Macbeth first feels the impending 
evil, expresses again all those elements I have noticed in the 
mass-effect of the play: questioning doubt, horror, fear of 
some unknown power; horrible imaginings of the super 
natural and 'fantastical*; an abysm of unreality; disorder on 
the plane of physical life. This speech is a microcosm of the 
Macbeth vision : it contains the germ of the whole. Like a 
stone in a pond, this original immediate experience of 
Macbeth sends ripples of itself expanding over the whole 
play. This is the moment of the birth of evil in Macbeth he 
may have had ambitious thoughts before, may even have 
intended the murder, but now for the first time he feels its 
oncoming reality. This is the mental experience which he 
projects into action, thereby plunging his land, too, in fear, 
horror, darkness, and disorder. In this speech we have a 
swift interpenetration of idea with idea, from fear and dis 
order, through sickly imaginings, to abysmal darkness, 
nothingness. 'Nothing is but what is not* : that is the text of 
the play. Reality and unreality change places. We must see 
that Macbeth, like the whole universe of this play, is para 
lysed, mesmerized, as though in a dream. This is not merely 
'ambition* it is fear, a nameless fear which yet fixes itself 
to a horrid image. He is helpless as a man in a nightmare: 
and this helplessness is integral to the conception the will- 
concept is absent. Macbeth may struggle, but he cannot 
fight: he can no more resist than a rabbit resists a weasel's 
teeth fastened in its neck, or a bird the serpent's transfixing 
eye. Now this evil in Macbeth propels him to an act abso 
lutely evil. For, though no ethical system is ultimate, 
Macbeth *s crime is as near absolute as may be. It is there- 



154 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIJL 

fore conceived as absolute. Its dastardly nature is emphasized 
clearly (i. vii. 12-25): Duncan is old, good; he is at once 
Macbeth 's kinsman, king, and guest; he is to be murdered 
in sleep. No worse act of evil could well be found. So the 
evil of which Macbeth is at first aware rapidly entraps him 
in a mesh of events: it makes a tool of Duncan's visit, it 
dominates Lady Macbeth. It is significant that she, like her 
husband, is influenced by the Weird Sisters and their 
prophecy. Eventually Macbeth undertakes the murder, as a 
grim and hideous duty. He cuts a sorry figure at first, but, 
once embarked on his allegiant enterprise of evil, his 
grandeur grows. Throughout he is driven by fear the fear 
that paralyses everyone else urges him to an amazing and 
mysterious action of blood. This action he repeats, again and 
again. 

By his original murder he isolates himself from humanity. 
He is lonely, endures the uttermost torture of isolation. Yet 
still a bond unites him to men: that bond he would 'cancel 
and tear to pieces 1 the natural bond of human fellowship 
and love. 1 He further symbolizes his guilty, pariah soul by 
murdering Banquo. He fears everyone outside himself but 
his wife, suspects them. Every act of blood is driven by fear 
of the horrible disharmony existent between himself and his 
world. He tries to harmonize the relation by murder. He 
would let 'the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds 
suffer' (in. ii, 16) to win back peace. He is living in an 
unreal world, a fantastic mockery, a ghoulish dream: he 
strives to make this single nightmare to rule the outward 
things of his nation. He would make all Scotland a night 
mare thing of dripping blood, He knows he cannot return, 
so determines to go o'er. He seeks out the Weird Sisters a 
second time. Now he welcomes disorder and confusion, 
would let them range wide over the earth, since they range 
unfettered in his own soul : 

. . . though, the treasure 
Of nature's germens tumble all together, 
Even till destruction sicken; answer me 
To what I ask you. (iv. i. 58) 

* Macbeth pray* to night to 'cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me 
p*k' (m. ii. 49). Thii it the bond of nature, that which binds man to the good which is in 
htm; tfae bond of daylight, reality, life. 'Cancel his bond of life* occurs in Richard 111^ rv iv. 77. 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 155 

So he addresses the Weird Sisters. Castles, palaces, and 
pyramids let all fall in general confusion, if only Macbeth 
be satisfied. He is plunging deeper and deeper into unreality, 
the severance from mankind and all normal forms of life is 
now abysmal, deep. Now he is shown Apparitions glassing 
the future. They promise him success in terms of natural 
law; no man *of woman born' shall hurt him, he shall not be 
vanquished till Birnam Wood come against him. He, based 
firmly in the unreal, yet thinks to build his future on the laws 
of reality. He forgets that he is trafficking with things of 
nightmare fantasy, whose truth is falsehood, falsehood truth. 
That success they promise is unreal as they themselves. So, 
once having cancelled the bond of reality he has no home: 
the unreal he understands not, the real condemns him. In 
neither can he exist. He asks if Banquo's issue shall reign 
in Scotland: most horrible thought to him, since, if that be 
so, it proves that the future takes its natural course irrespec 
tive of human acts that prophecy need not have been inter 
preted into crime : that he would in truth have been King of 
Scotland without his own *stir* (r. iii. 144). Also the very 
thought of other succeeding and prosperous kings, some of 
them with 'twofold balls and treble sceptres' (iv. i. 121), is 
a maddening thing to him who is no real king but only 
monarch of a nightmare realm. The Weird Sisters who were 
formerly as the three Parcae, or Fates, foretelling Macbeth's 
future, now, at this later stage of his story, become the 
Erinyes, avengers of murder, symbols of the tormented soul. 
They delude and madden him with their apparitions and 
ghosts. Yet he does not give way, and raises our admiration 
at his undaunted severance from good. He contends for his 
own individual soul against the universal reality. Nor is his 
contest unavailing. He is fighting himself free from the 
nightmare fear of his life. He goes on 'till destruction sicken* 
(iv. i. 60): he actually does *go o'er', is not lost in the 
stream of blood he elects to cross. It is true. He wins his 
battle. He adds crime to crime and emerges at last victorious 
and fearless: 

I have almost forgot the taste of fears : 

The time has been, my senses would have cooTd 

To hear a night-shriek ; and my fell of hair 



158 MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL 

the psychological state which gives these extraneous things 
of horror their reality and opportunity. And if we are loth 
to believe in such evil realities, potentially at least alive and 
powerful, we might call to mind the words of Lafeu in All s 
Well that Ends Well'. 

They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to 
make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence is 
it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming 
knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear. 
* (n. iii. i) 

A profound commentary on Macbeth. But, though the ulti 
mate evil remain a mystery, analysis of the play indicates 
something of its relation to the mind and the actions of men. 
Such analysis must be directed not to the story alone, but 
to the manifold correspondencies of imaginative quality ex 
tending throughout the whole play. The Macbeth vision is 
powerfully superlogical. Yet it is the work of interpretation 
to give some logical coherence to things imaginative. To do 
this it is manifestly not enough to abstract the skeleton of 
logical sequence which is the story of the play: that is to 
ignore the very quality which justifies our anxious attention. 
Rather, relinquishing our horizontal sight of the naked 
rock-line which is the story, we should, from above, view the 
whole work extended, spatialized : and then map out imagina 
tive similarities and differences, hills and vales and streams. 
Only to such a view does Macbeth reveal the full riches of its 
meaning. Interpretation must thus first receive the quality 
of the play in the imagination, and then proceed to translate 
this whole experience into a new logic which will not be 
confined to those superficialities of cause and effect which 
we think to trace in our own lives and actions, and try to 
impose on the persons of literature. In this way, we shall 
know that Macbeth shows us an evil not to be accounted for 
in terms of 'will' and 'causality'; that it expresses its vision, 
not to a critical intellect, but to the responsive imagination; 
and, working in terms not of 'character' or any ethical code, 
but of the abysmal deeps of a spirit-world untuned to human 
reality, withdraws the veil from the black streams which mill 
that consciousness of fear symbolized in actions of blood. 
Macbeth is the apocalypse of evil. 



MACBETH AND THE METAPHYSIC OF EVIL I 59 

ADDITIONAL NOTE (194?) 

In Hamlet and Macbeth supernatural figures are first objective ; seen later 
by the hero alone; and, at the conclusion, clearly do not exist; as though 
some unrest in the outer universe has been satisfactorily projected and dis 
pelled. Does this help to explain the gathering poetic force of Macbeth'* 
speeches, culminating in the supreme pieces of Act V > Note, too, Macbeth's 
courage in successfully dismissing the air-drawn dagger and, twice, Ban- 
quo's Ghost. Macbeth shows throughout a positive drive. For a further 
development of this reading, see my Christ and Nietzsche. 

For a study of the more obvious, countering, positives (e.g. effects of 
social health, nature, Banquo's descendants and child-images rising to the 
child-apparitions) see my essay 'The Milk of Concord* in The Imperial 
Theme - y and also my analysis of the Apparition scene in The Shakespearian 
Tempest. For Hecate see Th& Shakespearian Tempest, App. B. 



VIII 

KING LEAR AND THE COMEDY OF 
THE GROTESQUE 

IT may appear strange to search for any sort of comedy 
as a primary theme in a play whose abiding gloom is so 
heavy, whose reading of human destiny and human actions 
so starkly tragic. Yet it is an error of aesthetic judgement to 
regard humour as essentially trivial. Though its impact 
usually appears vastly different from that of tragedy, yet 
there is a humour that treads the brink of tears, and tragedy 
which needs but an infinitesimal shift of perspective to dis 
close the varied riches of comedy. Humour is an evanescent 
thing, even more difficult of analysis and intellectual location 
than tragedy. To the coarse mind lacking sympathy an 
incident may seem comic which to the richer understanding 
is pitiful and tragic. So, too, one series of facts can be treated 
by the artist as either comic or tragic, lending itself equiva- 
lently to both. Sometimes a great artist may achieve signifi 
cant effects by a criss-cross of tears and laughter. Tchehov 
does this, especially in his plays. A shifting flash of comedy 
across the pain of the purely tragic both increases the 
tension and suggests, vaguely, a resolution and a purification. 
The comic and the tragic rest both on the idea of incom 
patibilities, and are also, themselves, mutually exclusive: 
therefore to mingle them is to add to the meaning of each; 
for the result is then but a new sublime incongruity. 

King Lear is roughly analogous to Tchehov where Mac 
beth is analogous to Dostoievsky. The wonder of Shake 
spearian tragedy is ever a mystery a vague, yet powerful, 
tangible, presence; an interlocking of the mind with a pro 
found meaning, a disclosure to the inward eye of vistas un 
dreamed, and but fitfully understood. King Lear is great in 
the abundance and richness of human delineation, in the 
level focus of creation that builds a massive oneness, in fact, 
a universe, of single quality from a multiplicity of differ 
entiated units; and in a positive and purposeful working out 

160 



KTXG LEJR ll 

of a purgatorial philosophy. But it is still greater in the 
perfect fusion of psychological realism with the daring 
flights of a fantastic imagination. The heart of a Shake 
spearian tragedy is centred in the imaginative, in the un 
known; and in ging Lear^ where^ w^.J^ucb.th^.jaafeBQWn, 
we touch the fantasjtic v The peculiar dualism at the root of 
this play which wrenches and splits the mind by a sight of 
incongruities displays in turn realities absurd, hideous, piti 
ful. This mcongrujty is^iear's madaess^ it is also the 
demonic laughter that echoes in the Lear universe. In pure 
tragedy the dualism of experience is continually being dis 
solved in the~masterfuT\beauty of passion^ merged in 'the 
sunset of emotion. But in comedy it is not so softly resolved 
incompatibilities stand out till the sudden relief of laughter 
or its equivalent of humour: therefore incongruity is the 
especial mark of comedy. Now in King Lear there is a 
dualism continually crying in vain to be resolved either by 
tragedy or comedy. Thence arises its peculiar tension of 
pain : and the course of the action often comes as near to the 
resolution of comedy as to that of tragedy. So I shall notice 
here the imaginative core of the play, and, excluding much 
of the logic of the plot from immediate attention, analyse 
the fantastic comedy of King Lear. 

From the start, the situation has a comic aspect. It has 
been observed that Lear has, so to speak, staged an interlude, 
with himself as chief actor, in which he grasps expressions 
of love to his heart, and resigns his sceptre to a chorus of 
acclamations. It is childish, foolish but very human. So, 
too, is the result. Sincerity forbids play-acting, and Cordelia 
cannot subdue her instinct to any judgement advising tact 
rather than truth. The incident is profoundly comic and 
profoundly pathetic. It is, indeed, curious that so storm- 
furious a play as King Lear should have so trivial a domestic 
basis: it is the first of our many incongruities to be noticed. 
The absurdity of the old King's anger is clearly indicated 
by Kent: 

Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow 

Upon the foul disease. (i. i. 166) 

The result is absurd. Lear's loving daughter Cordelia is 
struck from his heart's register, and he is shortly, old and 



I 62 A'/.VC? LEAR 

grey-haired and a king, cutting a cruelly ridiculous figure 
before the cold sanity of his unloving elder daughters. Lear 
is selfish, self-centred. The images he creates of his three 
daughters' love are quite false, sentimentalized: he under- 
jrtajid^he na^ and demanding an 

7i nreaTand Tm possible love from all three, is disillusioned by 
each in turn. But, though sentimental, this love is not weak. 
It is powerful and firm-planted in his mind as a mountain 
rock embedded in earth. The tearing out of it is hideous, 
cataclysmic. A tremendous soul is, as it were, incongruously 
geared to a puerile intellect. Lear's senses prove his idealized 
love-figments false, his intellect snaps, and, as the loosened 
drive flings limp, the disconnected engine of madness spins 
free, and the ungeared revolutions of it are terrible, fantastic. 
..This, then, is the basis of the play: greatness linked to 
puerility. Lear's instincts are themselves grand, heroic 
noble even. His jvdgejnent is nothing. He understands 
neither himself nor bis daughters: 

Rega*. Tis the infirmity of his age : yet he hath ever but slenderly known 

himself. 

Gf*triJ. The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash . . . 

(1.1.296) 

Lear starts his own tragedy by a foolish misjudgement. 
Lear's fault is a fault of the mind, a mind unwarrantably, 
because selfishly, foolish. And he knows it: 

O Lear, Lear, Lear ! 
Beat at this gate that let thy folly in, 
And thy dear judgement out ! (i. iv. 294) 

His purgatory is to be a purgatory of the mind, of madness. 
Lear has trained himself to think he cannot be wrong: he 
finds he is wrong. He has fed his heart on sentimental know 
ledge of his children's love: he finds their love is not senti 
mental. There isnowa gaping dualism in his mind, thus drawn 
asunder by incongruities^ and he endures madness. Thus the 
theme of the play is bodied continually into a fantastic 
incongruity, which is implicit in the beginning in the very 
act of Lear's renunciation, retaining the 'title and addition* 
of King, yet giving over a king's authority to his children. 
As he becomes torturingly aware of the truth, incongruity 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 163 

masters his mind, and fantastic madness ensues; and this 
peculiar fact of the Lear-theme is reflected in the Lear 
universe: 

Gloucester. These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us : 
though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature 
finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off. 
brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, 
treason ; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine 
comes under the prediction ; there 's son against father : the King falls 
from bias of nature; there *s father against child. We have seen the best 
of our time : machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous dis 
orders, follow us disquietly to our graves. (i. ii. 115) 

Gloucester's words hint a universal incongruity here: the 
fantastic incongruity of parent and child opposed. And it 
will be most helpful later to notice the Gloucester-theme in 
relation to that of Lear. 

From the first signs of Gonerirs cruelty, the Fool is used 
as a chorus, pointing us to the absurdity of the situation. He 
is indeed an admirable chorus, increasing our pain by his 
emphasis on a humour which yet will not serve to merge 
the incompatible in a unity of laughter. He is not all wrong 
when he treats the situation as matter for a joke. Much here 
that is always regarded as essentially pathetic is not far from 
comedy. For instance, consider Lear's words: 

I will have such revenges on you both 

That all the world shall I will do such things 

What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be 

The terrors of the earth. (11. iv. 282) 

What could be more painfully incongruous, spoken, as it is, 
by an old man, a king, to his daughter? It is not far from the 
ridiculous. The very thought seems a sacrilegious cruelty, 
I know: but ridicule is generally cruel. The speeches of Lear 
often come near comedy. Again, notice the abrupt contrast 
in his words: 

But yet thou art m> flesh, my blood, my daughter ; 

Or rather a disease that *s in my flesh, 

Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil, 

A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, 

In my corrupted blood. But I'll not chide thee . . . 

(u. iv. 224) 



164 XT/A'C LEAK 

This is not comedy, nor humour. But it is exactly the stuff 
of which humour is made v Lear is mentall^a child; jn passjon 
a titan. The absurdity of his everylct at the beginning of his 
tragedy is contrasted with the dynamic fury which inter 
mittently bursts out, flickers then flames and finally gives 
us those grand apostrophes lifted from man's stage of 
earth to heaven's rain and fire and thunder: 

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks ! rage 1 blow ! 

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout 

Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks ! 

(in. ii. i) 

Two speeches of this passionate and unrestrained volume of 
Promethean curses are followed by: 

No, I will be the pattern of all patience; 

I will say nothing. ("*- 37) 

Again we are in touch with potential comedy: a slight shift 
of perspective, and the incident is rich with humour, A sense 
of self-directed humour would, indeed, have saved Lear. It 
is a quality he absolutely lacks. 

Herein lies the profound insight of the Fool: he sees the 
potentialities of comedy 'in Lear's behaviour. This old man, 
recently a king, and, if his speeches are fair samples, more 
than a little of a tyrant, now goes from daughter to daughter, 
furious because Goneril dares criticize his pet knights, 
kneeling down before Regan, performing, as she says, 
'unsightly tricks* (IK iv. 1 59) the situation is excruciatingly 
painful, and its painfulness is exactly of that quality which 
embarrasses in some forms of comedy* In the theatre, one is 
terrified lest some one laugh : yet, if Lear could laugh if the 
Lears of the world could laugh at themselves there would 
be no such tragedy. In the early scenes old age and dignity 
suffer, and seem to deserve, the punishments of childhood : 

Now, by my life, 

Old fools are babes again ; and must be used 
With checks as flatteries. (i. iii. 19) 

The situation is summed up by the Fool : 

Liar. When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah ? 
Fool. I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy 
mother: for when thou gavest them the rod, and put'st down thine 
own breeches ... (i. iv. 186) 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 165 

The height of indecency in suggestion, the height of incon 
gruity. Lear is spiritually put to the ludicrous shame endured 
bodily by Kent in the stocks : and the absurd rant of Kent, 
and the unreasonable childish temper of Lear, both merit in 
some measure what they receive. Painful as it may sound, 
that is, provisionally, a truth we should realize. The Fool 
realizes it. He is, too, necessary. Here, where the plot turns 
on the diverging tugs of two assurances in the mind, it is 
natural that the action be accompanied by some symbol of 
humour, that mode which is built of unresolved incompati 
bilities. Lear's torment is a torment of this dualistic kind, 
since he scarcely believes his senses when his daughters 
resist him. He repeats the history of Troilus, who cannot 
understand the faithlessness of Cressid. In Othello and Timon 
of Athens the transition is swift from extreme love to revenge 
or hate. The movement of Lear's mind is less direct: like 
Troilus, he is suspended between two separate assurances. 
Therefore Pandarus, in the latter acts of Troilus and Crcssida, 
plays a part similar to the Fool in King Lean both attempt 
to heal the gaping wound of the mind's incongruous know 
ledge by the unifying, healing release of laughter. They make 
no attempt to divert, but rather to direct the hero's mind to the 
present incongruity. The Fool sees, or tries to see, the humor 
ous potentialities in the most heart-wrenching of incidents : 
Lear. O me, my heart, my rising heart \ but, down ! 
Fool. Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put *em i 1 
the paste alive ; she knapped 'em o' the coxcombs with a stick, and cried 
'Down, wantons, down P Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to 
his horse, buttered his hay. (u, iv. 122) 

Except for the last delightful touch the antithesis of the 
other that is a cruel, ugly sense of humour. It is the sinister 
humour at the heart of this play: we are continually aware of 
the humour of cruelty and the cruelty of humour. But the 
Fool's use of it is not aimless. If Lear could laugh he might 
yet save his reason. 

But there is no relief. Outside, in the wild country, the 
storm grows more terrible: 

Kent. . . . Since I was man 

Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, 

Such groans of roaring wind and rain, 1 never 

Remember to have heard . . . (in. ii. 45) 



I 66 *7A<7 LFJR 

Lear's mind keeps returning to the unreality, the impossi 
bility of what has happened: 

Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all 

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; 

No more of that. 0". iv. 20) 

He is still self-centred; cannot understand that he has been 
anything but a perfect father; cannot understand his 
daughters* behaviour. It is 

as this mouth should tear this hand 
For lifting food to't ... (HI. iv. 1 5) 

It is incongruous, impossible. There is no longer any *rule 
in unity itself. 1 Just as Lear's mind begins to fail, the Fool 
finds Edgar disguised as 'poor Tom'. Edgar now succeeds 
the Fool as the counterpart to the breaking sanity of Lear; 
and where the humour of the Fool made no contact with 
Lear's mind, the fantastic appearance and incoherent words 
of Edgar are immediately assimilated, as glasses correctly 
focused to the sight of oncoming madness. Edgar turns the 
balance of Lear's wavering mentality. His fantastic appear 
ance and lunatic irrelevancies, with the storm outside, and 
the Fool still for occasional chorus, create a scene of wraith- 
like unreason, a vision of a world gone mad : 

. . . Bless thy five wits j Tom's a-coki O, do de, do de, do de. Bless 
thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Torn some 
charity, whom the foul fiend vexes : there could I have him now and 
there and there again, and there. (HI. iv. 57) 

To Lear his words are easily explained. His daughters 'have 
brought him to this pass*. He cries: 

Le*r. Is it the fashion that discarded fathers 

Should have thus little mercy on their flesh? 

Judicious punishment ! 'twas thi^ flesh begot 

Those pelican daughters. 
Edgar. Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill: 

Halloo, halloo, loo, loo! 
Foo/. This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen. 

(in. iv. 71) 

What shall we say of this exquisite movement? Is it comedy? 
Lear's profound unreason is capped by the blatant irrelevance 

* Troths and Crwida t \ it 1^8. 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE I 67 

of Edgar's couplet suggested by the word 'pelican'; then the 
two are swiftly all but unified, for us if not for Lear, in the 
healing balm of the Fool's conclusion. It is the process of 
humour, where two incompatibles are resolved in laughter. 
The Fool does this again. Lear again speaks a profound 
truth as the wild night and Edgar's fantastic impersonation 
grip his mind and dethrone his conventional sanity: 

Lear. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the 
worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. 
Ha ! Here *s three on *s are sophisticated i Thou art the thing itself: 
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal 
as thou art. Off, off, you lendings ! come unbutton here. (Tearing of his 
clothes.) 

Fool. Prithee, nuncle, be contented; 'tis a naughty night to swim in. 

(in. iv. 105) 

This is the furthest flight, not of tragedy, but of philosophic 
comedy. The autocratic and fiery-fierce old king, symbol of 
dignity, is confronted with the meanest of men: a naked 
lunatic beggar. In a flash of vision he attempts to become his 
opposite, to be naked, 'unsophisticated*. And then the 
opposing forces which struck the lightning-flash of vision tail 
off, resolved into a perfect unity by the Fool's laughter, 
reverberating, trickling, potent to heal in sanity the hideous 
unreason of this tempest-shaken night: *'tis a naughty night 
to swim in*. Again this is the process of humour: its flash of 
vision first bridges the positive and negative poles of the 
mind, unifying them, and then expresses itself in laughter. 

This scene grows still more grotesque, fantastical, sinister. 
Gloucester enters, his torch flickering in the beating wind: 

Fool. . . . Look, here comes & walking fire. 

(Enter Gloucester, with a toreb.) 

EJgar. This fs the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew and 
walks till the first cock . . . (HI. iv. 1 16) 

Lear welcomes Edgar as his 'philosopher', since he embodies 
that philosophy of incongruity and the fantastically-absurd 
which is Lear's vision in madness. 'Noble philosopher*, he 
says (in. iv. 1 76), and 'I will still keep with my philosopher' 
(in. iv. 1 80). The unresolved dualism that tormented Troilus 
and was given metaphysical expression by him (Troifas and 
Cressida^ v. ii. 1 3457) is here more perfectly bodied into the 



I 68 JC/AV7 LEAR 

poetic symbol of poor Tom : and since Lear cannot hear the 
resolving laugh of foolery, his mind is focused only to the 
'philosopher' mumbling of the foul fiend. Edgar thus serves 
to lure Lear on : we forget that he is dissimulating. Lear is 
the centre of our attention, and as the world shakes with 
tempest and unreason, we endure something of the shaking 
and the tempest of his mind. The absurd and fantastic reign 
supreme. Lear does not compass for more than a few speeches 
the 'noble anger 7 (n. iv. 279) for which he prayed, the anger 
of Timon. From the start he wavered between affection and 
disillusionment, love and hate. The heavens in truth 'fool' 
(n, iv. 278) him. He is the 'natural fool of fortune' (iv. vi. 
1 96). Now his anger begins to be a lunatic thing, and when 
it rises to any sort of magnificent fury or power it is toppled 
over by the ridiculous capping of Edgar's irrelevancies: 



r. To have a thousand with red burning spits 
Come hissing in upon *em 
Edgar. The foul fiend bites my back. (m. vi. 17) 

The mock trial is instituted. Lear's curses were for a short 
space terrible, majestic, less controlled and purposeful than 
Timon's but passionate and grand in their tempestuous fury. 
Now, in madness, he flashes on us the ridiculous basis of his 
tragedy in words which emphasize the indignity and incon 
gruity of it, and make his madness something nearer the 
ridiculous than the terrible, something which moves our 
pity, but does not strike awe : 

Arraign her first; 'tis Goneril. I here take my oath before this honour 
able assembly, she kicked the poor king her father. (in. vi. 49) 

This stroke of the absurd so vastly different from the awe 
we experience in face of Timon's hate is yet fundamental 
here. The core of the play is an abs^jiQyaii .indignity, an 
Trrf^^^gc^^of^f^cspe^rc does incident and 
set recklessly and miraculously walk the tight-rope 
of our pity over the depths of bathos and absurdity. 

This particular region of the terrible bordering on the 
fantastic and absurd is exactly the playground of madness. 
Thus the setting of Lear's madness includes a sub-plot where 
these same elements are presented with stark nakedness, and 
no veiling subtleties. The Gloucester-theme is a certain indi- 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 169 

cation of our vision and helps us to understand, and feel, 
the enduring agony of Lear. As usual, the first scene of this 
play strikes the dominant note. Gloucester jests at the 
bastardy of his son Edmund, remarking that, though he is 
ashamed to acknowledge him, 'there was good sport at his 
making 7 (i. i. 23). That is, we start with humour in bad taste, 
The whole tragedy witnesses a sense of humour in 'the gods' 
which is in similar bad taste. Now all the Lear effects are 
exaggerated in the Gloucester theme. Edmund's plot is a 
more lago-like, devilish, intentional thing than Goneril's 
and Regan's icy callousness. Edgar's supposed letter is crude 
and absurd : 

... I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged 
tyranny ... (i. ii. 53) 

But then Edmund, wittiest and most attractive of villains, 
composed it. One can almost picture his grin as he penned 
those lines, commending them mentally to the limited intel 
lect of his father. Yes the Gloucester theme has a begin 
ning even more fantastic than that of Lear's tragedy. And 
not onlyare the Lear effects here exaggerated in the directions 
of villainy and humour: they are even more clearly exaggera 
ted in that of horror. The gouging out of Gloucester's 
eyes is a thing unnecessary, crude, disgusting: it is meant to 
be. It helps to provide an accompanying exaggeration of one 
element that of cruelty in the horror that makes Lear's 
madness* And not only horror: there is even again something 
satanically comic bedded deep in it. The sight of physical 
torment, to the uneducated, brings laughter. Shakespeare's 
England delighted in watching both physical torment and 
the comic ravings of actual lunacy. The dance of madmen in 
Webster's Duchess of Malji is of the same ghoulish humour 
as Regan's plucking Gloucester by the beard: the ground 
lings will laugh at both. Moreover, the sacrilege of the human 
body in torture must be, to a human mind, incongruous, 
absurd. This hideous mockery is consummated in Regan's 
final witticism after Gloucester's eyes are out: 

Go, thrust him out at gates, and let him smell 

His way to Dover. (ni. vii. 93) 



LEAR 

- The macabre humoresque of this is nauseating: but it is 
there, and integral to the play. These ghoulish horrors, so 
popular in Elizabethan drama, and the very stuff of the Lear 
of Shakespeare's youth, Titus Andronicus, find an exquisitely 
appropriate place in the tragedy of Shakespeare's maturity 
which takes as its especial province this territory of the 
grotesque and the fantastic which is Lear's madness. We 
are, indeed, pointed to this grim fun, this hideous sense of 
humour, at the back of tragedy : 

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods ; 

They kill us for their sport. (iv. i. 36) 

This illustrates the exact quality I wish to emphasize: the 
humour a boy even a nice boy may see in the wriggles of 
an impaled insect. So, too, Gloucester is bound, and tortured, 
physically; and so the mind of Lear is impaled, crucified on 
the cross-beams of love and disillusion. 

There follows the grim pilgrimage of Edgar and Glouces 
ter towards Dover Cliff: an incident typical enough of King 
Lear 

Tis the times' plague when madmen lead the blind, (iv. i. 46) 
They stumble on, madman and blind man, Edgar mumbling : 

. . . five fiends have been in poor Tom at once; of lust, as Obidicut; 
Hobbididance, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Modo, of 
murder; Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing, who since possesses 
chambermaids and waiting-women . . . (iv. i. 59) 

They are near Dover. Edgar persuades his father that they 
are climbing steep ground, though they are on a level field, 
that the sea can be heard beneath : 

G/oitfejeer. Methinks the ground is even. 

Edgar. Horrible steep. 

Hark, do you hear the sea? 
GJotfester. No, truly. 

Edgar. Why, then >our other senses grow imperfect 

By your eyes* anguish. (iv. vi. 3) 

Gloucester notices the changed sanity of Edgar's speech, 
and remarks thereon. Edgar hurries his father to the sup 
posed brink, and vividly describes the dizzy precipice over 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 17! 

which Gloucester thinks they stand : 

How fearful 

And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low ! 
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air 
Show scarce so gross as beetles : half way down 
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade ! . . . 

(iv. vi. 1 2) 

Gloucester thanks him, and rewards him; bids him move 
off; then kneels, and speaks a prayer of noble resignation, 
breathing that stoicism which permeates the suffering philo 
sophy of this play : 

O you mighty gods ! 

This world I do renounce, and, in your sights, 
Shake patiently my great affliction off: 
If I could bear it longer, and not fall 
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills, 
My snuff and loathed part of nature should 
Burn itself out. (tv. vi. 35) 

Gloucester has planned a spectacular end for himself. We 
are given these noble descriptive and philosophical speeches 
to tune our minds to a noble, tragic sacrifice. And what 
happens? The old man falls from his kneeling posture a few 
inches, flat, face foremost. Instead of the dizzy circling to 
crash and spill his life on the rocks below just this. The 
grotesque merged into the ridiculous reaches a consumma 
tion in this bathos of tragedy: it is the furthest, most ex 
aggerated, reach of the poet's towering fantastically. We 
have a sublimely daring stroke of technique, unjustifiable, 
like Edgar's emphasized and vigorous madness throughout, 
on the plane of plot-logic, and even to a superficial view 
somewhat out of place imaginatively in so dire and stark a 
limning of human destiny as is King Lear\ yet this scene is 
in reality a consummate stroke of art. The Gloucester-theme 
throughout reff ects~ alid^FmphasTzeS " ariTT exaggerates all the 
percurrent qualities of the Lear-theme. Here the incon 
gruous and fantastic element of the Lear-theme is boldly 
reflected into the tragically-absurd. The stroke is audacious, 
unashamed, and magical of effect. Edgar keeps up the 
deceit; persuades his father that he has really fallen; points 
to the empty sky, as to a cliff: 



17$ KING LEAR 

. . . the shrill-gorged lark 
Cannot be heard so far ... (iv. vi. $9) 

and finally paints a fantastic picture of a ridiculously 
grotesque devil that stood with Gloucester on the edge: 

As I stood here below, methought his eyes 

Were two full moons ; he had a thousand noses, 

Horns whelk'd and waved like the enridged sea ; 

It was some fiend . . . (iv. vi. 70) 

Some fiend, indeed. 

There is masterful artistry in all this. The Gloucester- 
theme has throughout run separate from thaToTTCeaf^ yet 
parallel, and continually giving us direct VillamyVfiere the 
othir*"sh6ws'cold callousness"; horrors" of physical torment 
where the other has a subtle mental torment; culminating 
in this towering stroke of the grotesque and absurd to 
balance the fantastic incidents and speeches that immediately 
follow. At this point we suddenly have our first sight of Lear 
in the full ecstasy of his later madness. Now, when our 
imaginations are most powerfully quickened to the grotesque 
and incongruous, the whole surge of the Gloucester-theme, 
which has just reached its climax, floods as a tributary the 
main stream of our sympathy with Lear. Our vision has thus 
been uniquely focused to understand that vision of the 
grotesque, the incongruous, the fantastically-horrible, which 
is the agony of Lear's mind: 

Enter Lear, ftxtastkaffy dressed with wild jSo&ers. 

(iv. vi. 81) 

So runs Capell's direction. Lear, late 'every inch a king', the 
supreme pathetic figure of literature, now utters the wild 
and whirling language of furthest madness. Sometimes his 
words hold profound meaning. Often they are tuned to the 
orthodox Shakespearian hate and loathing, especially sex- 
loathing, of the hate-theme. Or again, they are purely ludi 
crous, or would be, were it not a Lear who speaks them : 

. . . Look, look, a mouse ! Peace, peace ; this piece of toasted cheese will 
do't . . . (iv. vi. 90) 

It is, indeed, well that we are, as it were, prepared by now 
for the grotesque. Laughter is forbidden jus. Consummate 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 173 

art has so forged plot and incident that we may watch with 
tears rather than laughter the cruelly comic actions of Lear: 
Lear. I will die bravely, like a bridegroom. 1 What ! 
I will be jovial : come, come ; I am a king, 
My masters, know you that ? 
Gentleman. You are a royal one, and we obey you. 

Lear. Then there '$ life in't. Nay, if you get it, you shall get it with run 
ning. Sa, sa, sa, sa. 

(iv. vi. 203) 

Lear is a child again in his madness. We are in touch with 
the exquisitely pathetic, safeguarded only by Shakespeare's 
masterful technique from the bathos of comedy. 

But indeed this recurrent stress on the incongruous and 
the fantastic is not a subsidiary element in King Lean it is 
the very heart of the play. We watch humanity grotesquely 
tormented, cruelly and with mockery impaled: nearly all the 
persons suffer some form of crude indignity in the course of 
the play. I have noticed the major themes of Lear and 
Gloucester: there are others. Kent is banished, undergoes the 
disguise of a servant, is put to shame in the stocks; Cornwall 
is killed by his own servant resisting the dastardly mutilation 
of Gloucester; Oswald, the prim courtier, is done to death 
by Edgar in the role of an illiterate country yokel 

. . . keep out, che vor ye, or ise try whether your costard or my balkrw 
be the harder . . . (IT. vi. 247) 

Edgar himself endures the utmost degradation of his dis 
guise as *poor Tom', begrimed and naked, and condemned 
to speak nothing but idiocy. Edmund alone steers something 
of an unswerving tragic course, brought to a fitting, deserved, 
but spectacular end, slain by his wronged brother, nobly 
repentant at the last: 

Edixxjtd. What you have charged me with, that hare I done; 

And more, much more; the time will bring it out: 

Tis post, and so am I. But what art thou 

That hast this fortune on me? If thou'rt noble, 

I do forgave thee. 
Edgar. Let's exchange charity. 

I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund; 

If more, the more thou hast wrong'd me. 

My name is Edgar ... (v. iii. 164) 

This it to be related to Antony ami Cleopatra, iv. lii. too, and Af**rr/t,r Measure, 
m. i. 82; *l*o Ho*ltt % iv. iv. 62. 



174 KING LEAR 

The note of forgiving chivalry reminds us of the deaths of 
Hamlet and Laertes. Edmund's fate is nobly tragic: 'the 
wheel has come full circle; I am here' (v. iii. 176). And 
Edmund is the most villainous of alL Again, we have in 
congruity; and again, the Gloucester-theme reflects the Lear- 
theme. Edmund is given a noble, an essentially tragic, end, 
and Goneril and Regan, too, meet their ends with something 
of tragic fineness in pursuit of their evil desires. Regan dies 
by her sister's poison; Goneril with a knife. They die, at 
least, in the cause of love love of Edmund, Compared with 
these deaths, the end of Cordelia is horrible, cruel, un 
necessarily cruel the final grotesque horror in the play. 
Her villainous sisters are already dead. Edmund is nearly 
dead, repentant. It is a matter of seconds and rescue comes 
too late. She is hanged by a common soldier. The death 
which Dostoievsky's Stavrogin singled out as of all the least 
heroic and picturesque, or rather, shall we say, the most 
hideous and degrading: this is the fate that grips the^ white 
innocence and resplendent love-strength of Cordelia. To be 
hanged, after the death of her enemies, in the midst of 
friends. It is, the last hrdejausjoJke. of .destiny: this and the 
fact that Eeir is still alive, has recovered his sanity for this. 
The death of Cordelia is the last and most horrible of all the 
horrible incongruities I have noticed: 

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, 

And thou no breath at all? (v. iii. 308) 

We remember: 'Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the 
gods themselves throw incense' (v. iii. 20). Or do they laugh, 
and is the Lear universe one ghastly piece of fun ? 

We do not feel that. Thetragedy is most poignant Ja that 
it is purposeless, unreasonable. TfTsTFelnbst fearless artistic 
facing of the ultimate cruelty of things in our literature.^ 
That cruelty would be less were there not this element of 
comedy which I have emphasized, the insistent incongruities, 
which create and accompany the madness of Lear, which leap 
to vivid shape in the mockery of Gloucester's suicide, which 
are intrinsic in the texture of the whole play. Mankind is, as 
it were, deliberately and comically tormented by 'the gods*. 
He is not even allowed to die tragically. Lear is 'bound 



AND THE COMEDY OF THE GROTESQUE 175 

upon a wheel of fire' and only death will end the victim's 
agony : 

Vex not his ghost : O, let him pass I he hates him 

That would upon the rack of this tough world 

Stretch him out longer. (v. iii. 315) 

King Lear is supreme in that, in this main theme, it faces 
the very absence of tragic purpose : wherein it is profoundly 
different from Timon of Athens. Yet, as we close the sheets 
of this play, there is no horror, nor resentment. The tragic 
purification of the essentially untragic is yet complete. 

Now in this essay it will, perhaps, appear that I have 
unduly emphasized one single element of the play, magni 
fying it, and leaving the whole distorted. It has been my 
purpose to emphasize. I have not exaggerated. The pathos 
has not been minimized: it is redoubled. Nor does the use 
of the words 'comic* and 'humour* here imply disrespect to 
the poet's purpose: rather I have used these words, crudely 
no doubt, to cut out for analysis the yer^^heart^^jthejglay 
the thing that man, dares scarcely. faqg: the demonic grin of 
the incongruous., and absurd ia the mosT*{5itifbke& 4i*iznan 
struggles with an iron fate* It is this that wYeT*tfrs7 splits, 
gashes the mind till it utters the whirling vapourings ojf 
lunacy. And, though love and music twin sisters of sal 
vation temporarily may heal the racked consciousness of 
Lear, yet, so deeply planted in the facts of our life is this 
unknowing ridicule of destiny, that the uttermost tragedy 
of the incongruous ensues, and there is^no Jiopfc save.ia the 
broken heart and limp body pf death. This is of all the most 
.-agemzirrg of tragedies to endure: and if we are to feel more 
than a fraction of this agony, we must have sense of this 
quality of grimmest humour. We must beware of senti 
mentalizing the cosmic mockery of the play. 

And is there, perhaps, even a deeper, and less heart- 
searing, significance in its humour? Smiles and tears are 
indeed most curiously interwoven here. Gloucester was 
saved from his violent and tragic suicide that he might 
recover his wronged son's love, and that his heart might 

'Twizt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, 

Burst smilingly. (v. iii. 200) 



176 KING LEAR 

JLear dies with the words 

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, 

Look there, look there ! (v. iii. 312) 

What smiling destiny is this he sees at the last instant of 
racked mortality? Why have we that strangely beautiful 
account of Cordelia's first hearing of her father's pain: 

. . . patience and sorrow strove 
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen 
Sunshine and rain at once : her smiles and tears 
Were like a better way : those happy smilets, 
That play'd on her ripe lip, seem*d not to know 
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence, 
As pearls from diamonds dropp'd. In brief. 
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved, 
If all could so become it. (iv. iii. 18) 

What do we touch in these passages ? Sometimes we know 
that all human pain holds beauty, that no tear falls but it 
dews some flower we cannot see. Perhaps humour, too, is 
inwoven in the universal pain, and the enigmatic silence 
holds not only an unutterable sympathy, but also the ripples 
of an impossible laughter whose flight is not for the wing of 
human understanding; and perhaps it is this that casts its 
darting shadow of the grotesque across the furrowed pages 
of King Lear. 



IX 
THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

IT has been remarked that all the persons in King Lear 
are either very good or very bad. This is an overstatement, 
yet one which suggests a profound truth. In this essay I shall 
both expand and qualify it : the process will illuminate many 
human and natural qualities in the Lear universe and will 
tend to reveal its implicit philosophy. 

" Apart from Lear, the protagonist, and Gloucester, his 
shadow, the subsidiary dramatic persons fall naturally into 
two parties, good and bad. First, we have Cordelia, France, 
Albany, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar. Second Goneril, Regan, 
Burgundy, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund. The exact 
balance is curious. It will scarcely be questioned that the 
first party tend to enlist, and the second to repel, our ethical 
sympathies in so far as ethical sympathies are here roused in 
us. But neither party is wholly good, or wholly bad, except 
ing perhaps Cordelia. Our imaginative sympathies, certainly, 
are divided: Albany is weak, Kent unmannerly, Edgar fault 
less but without virility, there is much to be said for Goneril 
and Regan, and Edmund is most attractive. There is no such 
violent contrast as the lago-Desdemona antithesis in Othello. 
But the Lear persons are more frankly individualized than 
those in Macbeth: though the Lear universe is created on a 
highly visionary plane, though all the dramatic persons are 
strongly toned by its peculiar atmosphere, they are, as they 
appear within that universe and as related to the dominant 
technique, clearly different iated. King Lear gives one the 
impression of life's abundance magnificently compressed 
into one play. 

No Shakespearian play shows so wide a range of sym 
pathetic creation: we seem to be confronted, not with 
certain men and women only, but with mankind. It is strange 
to find that we have been watching little more than a dozen 
people. King Lear is a tragic vision of humanity, in its 
complexity, its interplay of purpose, its travailing evolution. 
The play is a microcosm of the human race strange as that 

177 



THJ / FJR 



word 'microcosm' sounds for the vastness, the width and 
depth, the vague vistas which this play reveals. Just as 
skilful grouping on the stage deceives the eye, causing six 
men to suggest an army, grouping which points the eye 
from the stage toward the unactualized spaces beyond which 
imagination accepts in its acceptance of the stage itself, so 
the technique here-^the vagueness of locality, and of time, 
the inconsistencies and impossibilities all lend the persons 
and their acts some element of mystery and some suggestion 
of infinite purposes working themselves out before us. 
Something similar is apparent in Macbeth^ a down-pressing, 
enveloping presence, mysterious and fearful: there it is 
purely evil, and its nature is personified in the Weird Sisters. 
Here it has no personal symbol, it is not evil, nor good; 
neither beautiful, nor ugly. It is purely a brooding presence, 
vague, inscrutable, enigmatic; a rnisty blurring opacity stilly 
overhanging, interpenetrating plot and action. This myster 
ious accompaniment to the Lear story makes of its persons 
vague symbols of universal forces. But those persons, 
in relation to their setting, are not vague. They have outline, 
though few have colour: they are like near figures in a mist. 
They blend with the quality of the whole. The form of the 
individual is modified, in tone, by this blurring fog. The 
Lear mist drifts across them as each in turn voices its typical 
phraseology; for this impregnating reality is composed of a 
multiplicity of imaginative correspondencies in phrase, 
thought, action throughout the play. That mental atmo 
sphere is as important, more important sometimes, than the 
persons themselves; nor, till we have clear sight of this 
peculiar Lear atmosphere, shall we appreciate the fecundity 
of human creation moving within it. King Lear is a work of 
philosophic vision. \We watch, not ancient Britons, but 
humanity; not England, but the world.\Man kind's relation 
to the universe is its theme, and Edgar's trumpet is as the 
universal judgement summoning vicious man to accountr 
In Timon of Aihens^ the theme is universalized by the 
creation of a universal and idealized symbol of mankind's 
aspiration, and the poet at every point subdues his creative 
power to a clarified, philosophic, working out of his theme. 
Here we seem to watch not a poet's purpose, but life itself; 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 179 

life comprehensive, rich, varied. Therefore the clear demar 
cation of half the persons into fairly 'good*, and half into 
fairly 'bad', is no chance here. It is an inevitable effect of a 
balanced, universalized vision of mankind's activity on 
earth. But the vision is true only within the scope of its own 
horizon. That is, the vision is a tragic vision, the impreg 
nating thought everywhere being concerned with cruelty, 
with suffering, with the relief which love and sympathy may 
bring, with the travailing process of creation and life. In 
Macbeth we experience Hell; in Antony and Cleopatra, 
Paradise; but this play is Purgatory. Its philosophy is 
continually purgatorial. 

In this essay I shall analyse certain strata in the play's 
thought, thus making more clear the quality of the mysterious 
presence I have noticed as enveloping the action; and in the 
process many persons and events will automatically assume 
new significance^The play works out before us the problems 
of human suffering and human im perfect iorfc the relation 
of humanity to nature on the one hand and'its aspiration 
toward perfection on the other. I shall note (i) the naturalism 
of the Lear universe, using the words 'nature* and 'natural' 
in no exact sense, but rather with a Protean variation in 
meaning which reflects the varying nature-thought of the 
play; (ii) its 'gods'; (iii) its insistent questioning of justice, 
human and divine; (iv) the stoic acceptance by many persons 
of their purgatorial pain; and (v) the flaming course of the 
Lear-theme itself growing out of this dun world, and touching 
at its full height a transcendent, apocalyptic beauty. These 
will form so many steps by which we may attain a compre 
hensive vision of the play's meaning. 

The philosophy of King Lear is firmly planted in the soil 
of earth. Nature, like human life, is abundant across its 
pages. Lear outlines the wide sweeps of land to be allotted 
to Goneril: 

Of all these bounds, even from this line to this, 

With shadowy forests and wide champains rich'd, 

With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads, 

We make thee kdy. (i. i. 65) 

We have the fine description of Dover Cliff: 



ISO THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air 
Show scarce so gross as beetles : half way down 
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade ! 

(iv. vi. 14) 

From this elevation 

the murmuring surge, 

That on the unnumbcr'd idle pebbles chafes, 
Cannot be heard so high. (iv. vi. 21) 



And 
seen 



;, from below, 'the shrill-gorged lark so far cannot be 
or heard' (iv. vi, 59). Lear is 'fantastically dressed with 
wild flowers' (iv. vi. 8i). x And we hear from Cordelia that 

he was met even now 
As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud j 
Crown'd with rank fbmiter and furrow-weeds, 
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, 
Darnel and all the idle weeds that grow 
In our sustaining corn. (iv. iv. r) 

The references to animals are emphatic. The thought of 
'nature* is as ubiquitous here as that of 'death* in Hamlet^ 
*fear' in Macbeth, or 'time* in Trot/us and Cressida. The 
phraseology is pregnant of natural reference and natural 
suggestion; and where the human element merges into the 
natural, the suggestion is often one of village life. The world 
of King Lear is townless. It is a world of flowers, rough 
country, tempestuous wind, and wild, or farmyard, beasts; 
and, as a background, there is continual mention of homely, 
countrified customs, legends, rhymes. This world is rooted 
in nature, firmly as a Hardy novel. The winds of nature blow 
through its pages, animals appear in every kind of context. 
The animals are often homely, sometimes wild, but neither 
terrifying nor beautiful. They merge into the bleak atmo 
sphere, they have nothing of the bizarre picturesqueness of 
those in Julius Caesar, and do not in their totality suggest 
the hideous and grim portent of those in Macbeth. We hear 
of the wolf, the owl, the cat, of sheep, swine, dogs (constantly), 
horses, rats and such like. Now there are two main directions 
for this animal and natural suggestion running through the 
play. First, two of the persons undergo a direct return to 
nature in their purgatorial progress; second, the actions of 

1 The stage-direction CapeU's. 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE l8l 

humanity tend to assume contrast with the natural world in 
point of ethics. I shall notice both these directions. 

Edgar escapes by hiding in *the happy hollow of a tree* 
(n. iii. 2) 3 and decides to disguise himselr. He will 

. . . take the basest and most poorest shape 

That ever penury, in contempt of man, 

Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth; 

Blanket my loins ; elf all my hair in knots ; 

And with presented nakedness outface 

The winds and persecutions of the sky. 

The country gives me proof and precedent 

Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, 

Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms 

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; 

And with this horrible object, from low farms. 

Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills, 

Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, 

Enforce their charity. (n. iii. 7) 

The empasis on nakedness open to the winds; on man's 
kinship with beasts; on suffering; on village and farm life; 
on lunacy; all these are important. So Edgar throughout 
his disguise reiterates these themes. His fantastic utterances 
tell a tale of wild country adventure, in outlying districts 
of man's civilization, weird, grotesque adventures: 

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led 
through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o'er bog 
and quagmire . . . 0- * v 49) 

He is 'hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog 
in madness, lion in prey' (HI. iv. 93). He sings village 
rhymes 'through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind* 
(m. iv. 45, 99). He has another of 'the nightmare and her 
nine-fold' (m* iv - I2 4)- He gives us a tale of his nauseating 
diet: 

Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, tbe toad, the tadpole, the 
wall-newt and the water ; that in the fary of hb heart, when the foul fiend 
rages, eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat and t be ditch-dog; 
drinks the green mantk of the standing pool . . . (in. iv. 132) 

'Mice and rats', he tells us, 'and such small deer, have been 
Tom*s food for seven long year* (HI. iv. 142). He studies 
'how to prevent the fiend and to kill vermin' (in. iv. 163). 



l82 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

He is always thinking of beasts *the foul-fiend haunts poor 
Tom in the voice of a nightingale* and a devil in his belly 
croaks for *two white herring* (in. vi. 32). He sings of the 
shepherd and his sheep (in. vi. 44). Lear, in his madness, 
talks or sings of little dogs, *Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart', 
that bark at him, and Edgar answers : 

Tom will throw his head at them. Avaunt ! you curs i 
Be thy mouth or bkck or white, 
Tooth that poisons if it bite; 
Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim, 
Hound or spaniel, brach or lym, 
Or bobtail tike or trundle-tail, 
Tom will make them weep and wail : 
For with throwing thus my head, 
Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled. (in. vi. 67) 

In the role of poor Tom Edgar enacts the Lear philosophy, 
expresses its peculiar animal-symbolism, and raises the pitch 
of the madness-extravaganza of the central scenes. Here he 
acts the appropriate forms which the Lear vision as a whole 
expresses. His words and actions are therefore most impor 
tant. So, later, he becomes the high-priest of the Lear 
religion : a voice, a choric moralizer. He has little personality: 
his function is more purely symbolical. Thus his slaying of 
the prim courtier Oswald in his guise of a country yokel with 
broad dialect (iv. vi.) suggests the antithesis between the 
false civilization and the rough naturalism which are the 
poles of the Lear universe. So, also, his challenge of Edmund 
at the end, with the trumpet blast, is strongly allegorical, 
suggesting a universal judgement. Now what Edgar suffers 
in mimicry, Lear suffers in fact: his return to nature is 
antiphonal to Lear's, points the progress of Lear's purgatory, 
illustrates it. fThe numerous animal-references suggest both 
Tom's kinship with beasts and his lunacy: animals being 
strange irrational forms of life to a human mind, perhaps 
touching some chord of primitive mentality, some stratum 
in subconsciousness reaching back aeons of the evolutionary 
process Aiow tumbled up in the loosened activity of madness. 
The suggestions of Edgar's speeches here form exquisite 
and appropriate accompaniment to Lear's breaking mind. 
Lear's history is like Edgar's. He, too, falls back on 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 183 

nature. From the first there is a primitive, animal power 
about him; from the first he is in sympathy with the elements 
of earth and sky. There is a pagan ferocity in Lear. 'Blasts 
and fogs upon thee', he cries to Goneril (i. iv. 323). Again, 

Strike her young bones, 
You taking airs, with lameness! (n. iv, 165) 

and, 

You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames 

Into her scornful eyes ! Infect her beauty, 

You fen-suck'd fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, 

To fall and blast her pride. (n. iv. 167) 

He prays to 'nature, dear goddess 1 to convey sterility into 
Gonerirs womb (i. iv. 299). To the heavens themselves he 
utters that pathetic, noble prayer: 

O heavens, 

If you do love old men, if your sweet sway 
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old, 
Make it your cause; send down and take my part ! 

(n. iv. 192) 

When his daughters prove relentless, he, like Edgar, offers 
himself to the elements and beasts : 

No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose 

To wage against the enmity o* the air; 

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl 

Necessity's sharp pinch ! {n. iv. 2 1 1) 

Next we find him 'contending with the fretful elements' 
(in. i. 4), directly addressing the 'cataracts', 'hurricanoes', 
the winds and thunder in his magnificent apostrophe to 
the storm (in. ii.). He prays it to 

Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once 

That make ingrateful man. (in. ii. 8) 

He then reviles the elements as 'servile ministers'; at the 
end of the play he recollects how 'the thunder would not 
peace at my bidding' (iv. vi. 104). When he finds Edgar, 
not only are Tom's mumbling irrelevances correctly focused 
for his cracking reason, but Tom himself, naked, savage, 
bestial, symbolizes that revulsion from humanity and the 



184 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

deceptions of human love and human reason which has 
driven him into the wild night-storm: 

... Is roan no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the 
worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. 
Ha ! Here 's three on *s are sophisticated ! Thou art the thing itself: 
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal 
as thou art. Off, off, you leadings ! come, unbutton here. 

(in. iv. 105) 

Notice the suggestion that man's clothes, symbols of civiliza 
tion, are only borrowed trappings from other forms of 
nature: man and nature are ever closely welded in the 
thought-texture here. Lear revolts from man, tries to become 
a thing of elemental, instinctive life: since rational conscious 
ness has proved unbearable. Hence the relevance of animals, 
and animal-symbolism, to madness. For madness is the 
breaking of that which differentiates man from beast. So 
Lear tries to become naked, bestial, unsophisticated; and 
later garlands himself with flowers. The Lear-theme is 
rooted throughout in nature. 

Thoughts of nature are also related to human vice. The evil 
of mankind is often here regarded as essentially a defacing 
of 'nature*, since this is now * human nature*, and human 
nature is moral. Thus Gloucester thinks Edmund is a *loyal 
and natural boy' (n. i. 86). Edmund is asked to 'enkindle 
all the sparks of nature' to avenge his father's suffering 
(in, vii. 86). Goneril and Regan are called 'unnatural hags' 
by Lear. Their acts are a 'deformity', says Albany; and 
Goneril is a fiend in woman's shape (iv. ii. 60). 'Nature' 
which 'contemns its origin', says Albany, is self-destructive: 

She that herself will sliver and disbranch 

From her material sap, perforce must wither 

And come to deadly use, (rtr. ii. 34) 

Lear wonders at Regan's nature: 

Then let them anatomize Regan : see what breeds about her heart. Is 
there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts? 

(in. vi. 80) 

Earlier he had referred to her 'tender-hefted nature* (ii. iv. 
1 74). But Lear himself has been unnatural, as Gloucester 
suggests: 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE I#5 

This villain of mine comes under the prediction ; there *s son against 
father: the King falls from bias of nature. There's father against child. 

(r.ii. 122) 

Goneril and Regan are 'most savage and unnatural', says 
Edmund, in pretence of agreeing with his father (in. iii. 7). 
It is man's nature to be loving: yet he behaves, too often, 
like the beasts. His inhumanity is thus related often to 
animals. Ingratitude in a child is hideous as a 'sea-monster* 
(i. iv. 285); Goneril is a 'detested kite* (i. iv. 286); she and 
her sister are *she-foxes' (in. vi. 25); women have turned 
'monsters' (in. vii. 102); humanity are in danger of becoming 
ravenous as 'monsters of the deep' (iv. ii. 50); Goneril 
'be-monsters' her feature (rv. ii. 63). She and Regan are 
'tigers, not daughters' (iv. ii. 40); they are 'dog-hearted' 
fiv. iii. 47); their 'sharp-tooth'd unkindness' is fixed in 
Lear's heart like a 'vulture' (n. iv, 137). Such phrases 
there are others show how firmly based on thoughts of 
nature is the philosophy of King Lear. Unkindness is in 
human, and like the beasts. Tlie daughters of Lear are 
'pelican daughters* sucking the blood that begot them 
(in. iv. 74); they are like the cuckoo in a hedge-sparrow's 
nest (i. iv. 238). The animal world may have its own ways: 
but mankind, by nature, should be something other than 
the beasts. Yet nature seems to create the good and humane 
together with the brutal and unnatural, irrespective of 
parents : 

It is the stars, 

The stars above us, govern our conditions; 

Else one self mate and make could not beget 

Such different issues. (iv. Hi. 34) 

So, when humanity is cruel as the beasts, it is better to 
leave them and return to nature: by comparison the beasts 
are less cruel ; they are, any way, natural. So Lear, like Edgar, 
exposes himself to storm, companion of 'owl' and *wolf ; 
and 'taxes not the elements with unkindness' (in. ii. 16), for 
they are not his daughters. Those daughters, and Edmund, 
are human beings, yet cruel as beasts that have no sense of 
sympathy. They are therefore throwbacks in the evolu 
tionary process: they have not developed proper humanity. 
They are 'degenerate* (i. iv. 277; iv. ii. 43). This is stressed 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 



implicitly by those phrases quoted above comparing Goneril 
and Regan 'to beasts: it is stressed explicitly by Edmund 
of himself. Edmund is the 'natural 1 son of Gloucester. His 
birth symbolizes his condition: and he is animal-like, both 
in grace of body and absence of sympathy. He is beautiful 
with nature's bounty and even compasses intellect and 
courtly manners: he lacks one thing unselfishness, sym 
pathy. He is purely selfish, soulless, and, in this respect, 
bestial Therefore 'nature' is his goddess: 

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law 

My services are bound. Wherefore should I 

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit 

The curiosity of nations to deprive me, 

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines 

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? 

When my dimensions are as well compact, 

My mind as generous and mv shape as true, 

As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us 

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base? 

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take 

More composition and fierce quality 

Than doth, within a dull, stale, ured bed, . 

Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops, 

Got 'tween asleep and wake ? (i. n. i) 

This is the key to Edmund's 'nature'. He repudiates and 
rejects 'custom', civilization. He obeys 'nature's 1 law of 
selfishness; he does not understand that it is in the nature 
of man to be unselfish, to love and serve his community, 
as surely as it is in the nature of the beast to glut his own 
immediate desire. Edmund's mistake is this. He thinks he 
has power to carve for himself, as a solitary unit. He recog 
nizes no fate, but only free will. It is 'the excellent foppery 
of the world' to put faith in the ruling of the stars, of destiny, 
or believe in any gods. Man is what he is, by his own choice: 
'Sfoot, I should have been that I am, bad the maidenliest star in the 
firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. (i. ii. 14?) 

He is retrograde from man's advance beyond the immediate 
desires of the bestial creation. 

In King Lear the religion, too, is naturalistic. We can 
distinguish three modes of religion stressed here by the poet. 
First, the constant references to the 'gods 7 ; second, the 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 187 

thoughts about ethical 'justice'; and, third, the moral or 
spiritual development illustrated by the persons before us. 
The 'gods' so often apostrophized are, however, slightly 
vitalized: one feels them to be figments of the human mind 
rather than omnipotent ruling powers they are presented 
with no poetic conviction. And exactly this doubt, this 
questioning, as to the reality and nature of the directing 
powers, so evident in the god-references, is one of the 
primary motives through the play. The gods here are more 
natural than supernatural; the good and bad elements in 
humanity are, too, natural, not, as in Macbeth, supernatural, 
King Lear is throughout naturalistic. The 'gods' are men 
tioned in various contexts where humanity speaks, under 
stress of circumstance, its fears or hopes concerning divinity: 
they are no more than this. 

Gloucester mentions them often in the latter acts, after 
his fortunes become tragic. Adversity elicits his definitely 
religious expressions. In the scene where his eyes are put 
out (in. vii) he thrice refers to the 'gods*, twice giving them 
the epithet 'kind'. Yet shortly after he remarks, 

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods ; 

They kill us for their sport. (iv. i. 36) 

This, however, is not his usual thought. Before his attempted 
suicide he gives Edgar a jewel, praying that 'fairies and 
gods' may 'prosper it' with him (iv. vi. 29); and next speaks 
his noble prayer commencing: 'O you mighty gods! This 
world I do renounce . . .' (iv. vi. 35). He is assured by 
Edgar that his survival is a miracle from 'the clearest gods' 
(iv. vi. 74). After seeing Lear in madness, Gloucester's sense 
of the King's sufferings brings home to him his despair's 
wrongfulness, and he asks forgiveness of the 'ever-gentle 
gods* (iv. vi. 222). The 'gods' are to Gloucester kind, 
generous beings: and their kindness and generosity are 
made known to him through his, and others', sufferings. 
He becomes, strangely, aware of 'the bounty and the benison 
of heaven' (iv. vi. 230). His movement toward religion is 
curiously unrational. Numerous other references to 'the 
gods' occur. Kent prays that 'the gods' may reward Glouces 
ter's kindness to Lear (HI. vi. 6); ironical enough in view 



l88 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

of what happens to him. Cordelia prays to 'you kind gods 1 
fiv. vii. 14); Edgar challenges Edmund as 'false to thy 
gods' (v. in. 136); and tells him that 'the gods are just* and 
plague men with their own vices (v. in. 172). Albany 
refers to the 'gods that we adore' (i. iv. 314), and cries 'The 
gods defend her!' on hearing of Cordelia's danger (v. iii. 
258). These phrases do not, as a whole, form a convincing 
declaration of divine reality: some show at the most an insis 
tent need in humanity to cry for justification to something 
beyond its horizon, others are almost perfunctory. Even 
Edmund can say, half-mockingly: 'Now, gods, stand up for 
bastards T (i. ii. 22). These gods are, in fact, man-made. 
They are natural figments of the human mind, not in any 
other sense transcendent: King Lear is, as a whole, pre 
eminently naturalistic. The 'gods' are equivalent in point of 
reality with 'the stars' that 'govern our conditions 1 (iv. iii. 
34); or the late eclipses of the sun' (i. ii. 115) and the 
prophecies mentioned by Gloucester; or the 'wicked charms' 
that Edgar was supposed to have been 'mumbling' (n. i. j. i). 
The evil forces behind nature are here always things of 
popular superstition, endowed with no such transcendent 
dramatic sanction as the Ghost in Hamlet or the Weird 
Sisters. As 'the gods 1 are created by man's change of soul 
in endurance of pain, so the 'fiends' here are, also, so to 
speak, home-made. Edgar's fiends are things clearly rooted 
in popular superstition, and they are presented as such. But, 
though this be their origin, and though they carry no ulti 
mate conviction of any sort as we read, yet their presence 
serves to heighten the grotesque effects of the poor Tom 
incidents. Their queer names are a joy. 'Hopdance' croaks 
in his belly for food (in. vi. 33). We hear that 

The prince of darkness is a gentleman; 

Modo he *s called and Mahu. (in. iv. 147) 

'Frateretto* is another (in, vi. 8), and 'Smulkin' (in. iv. 144). 

As Gloucester approaches with a flickering torch, Edgar 

says: 

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet : he begins at curfew, and walks 
till the first cock ; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and 
makes the hare-lip ; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature 
of earth. (m.iv. n8) 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 189 

Five fiends have been in poor Tom at once; Obidicut, 
Hobbididance, Flibbertigibbet, Modo, and Mahu (iv. i, 59). 
He is continually complaining of 'the foul fiend*. Finally 
there is the glorious fiend he describes to Gloucester, with 
eyes like 'full moons* and 'a thousand noses' (iv. vu 70); 
which description is an exception to my rule, since it surely 
transcends folk-lore. This is, indeed, tie only real fiend in 
the play: it has a grotesque, fantastic, ludicrous appeal which 
carries imaginative conviction; but, of course, there is no 
dramatic reality about him he is purely a fantasy created 
by Edgar, Both 'gods' and 'fiends' here are man-made and 
form part of the play's naturalism. The poet sees them as 
images in the minds of the dramatic persons, never as direct 
realities : that is, those persons do not express any consistent, 
clear, or compelling utterance about their natures. The 
explicit religion blends therefore with the naturalistic out 
look of the whole : gods and fiends are part of man and all 
are part of nature, merging with animals, elements, earth 
and its flowers. In Macbeth^ in Hamlet, in Troilus andCrcssida, 
there is not stressed this close human-natural relation: but 
in Timon of Athens^ King Lear's implicit naturalism is ren 
dered explicit. The 'gods' in King Lear are, in fact, less 
potent than natural realities. Witness the compelling beauty, 
the sense of healing and safety in Cordelia's lines to the 
Doctor who speaks of 'many simples operative* to 'close the 
eye of anguish* : 

All blest secrets, 

All you unpublished virtues of the earth, 
Spring with my tears ! be aidant and remediate 
In the good man's distress ! (nr. iv. 1 5) 

Lear himself shows, as I have already indicated, an ex 
cessive naturalism in point of religion. His early curses and 
prayers are addressed to natural objects, or nature personi 
fied. The 'heavens' he cries to are natural rather tha"n 
eschatological: they are, like the earth, 'old*. He invokes 
'blasts and fogs*, 'nimble lightnings', *fen-suck'd fogs' to 
avenge him (p. 183). He wishes 'the plagues that in the 
pendulous air hang fated o'er men's faults' to punish poor 
Tom's supposed 'daughters' (in. iv. 66). These natural 
deities he prays to execute natural punishment: Regan's 



190 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

young bones are to be struck with lameness, goddess nature 
is to convey sterility into Goneril's womb. He thinks purely 
in terms of the natural order. In these speeches his religion 
is pagan, naturalistic. It is, in fact, nearer primitive magic 
than religion, He swears by 

the sacred radiance of the sun, 
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night; 
By all the operation of the orbs 
From whom we do exist or cease to be ... (i. 5. 1 1 1) 

His early gods are classical: Apollo, Jupiter used, how 
ever, purely as oaths; and, once, 'high-judging Jove', with 
a sense of conviction (n. iv. 231). In the middle scenes he 
apostrophizes the elements as living beings. His early primi- 
tivism gives place, however, to something more definite in 
the thought of 'the great gods who keep this dreadful pother 
o'er our heads', whose 'enemies' are wicked men (in. ii. 49). 
Thoughts of morality are being added to his first pagan 
selfishness. He questions the justice of 'the heavens* towards 
naked poverty (in. iv. 28). He thinks of fiends in his 
madness: 

To have a thousand with red burning spits 

Come hissing in upon 'cm 0"- y i- *7) 

Of women, he says; 

But to the girdle do the gods inherit, 

Beneath is all the fiends'. (iv. vi. 1 29) 

These are transition thoughts from his early passionate 
paganism. The return to nature which he endures in the 
play's progress paradoxically builds in him a less naturalistic 
theology. At the end, he can speak to Cordelia those blazing 
lines: 

You do me wrong to tale me out o ? the grave: 

Thou art a soul in bliss ; but I am bound 

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears 

Do scald like molten lead. (iv. vii. 45) 

Now *the gods themselves* throw incense on human sacrifices 
(v. iii. 20). He and Cordelia will be as 'God's spies' (v. iii. 1 7) 
here not 'the gods', but 'God's '. Slowly, painfully, emer 
gent from the Lear naturalism we see a religion born of 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 19! 

disillusionment, suffering, and sympathy: a purely spon 
taneous, natural growth of the human spirit, developing from 
nature magic to *God*. 

The emergent religion here the stoic acceptance, the 
purification through sympathy, the groping after 'the gods' 
all these are twined with the conception of justice. The 
old Hebrew problem is restated : King Lear is analogous to 
the Book of Job. Is justice a universal principle? The thought 
of justice, human and divine, is percurrent. The first sentence 
of the play suggests that Lear is guilty of bias : 

Kent. I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than 
Cornwall. (i. i. i) 

He is unjust to Cordelia and to Kent in the first act. His 
suffering is thus seen to be at least related to injustice of his 
own. Edmund, too, has reason to complain of injustice: the 
world brands him with the shame of his birth and inflames 
his mind. Many of the persons here attempt to execute justice. 
Kent punishes Oswald for his impertinence and is himself 
punished; Regan and Cornwall sit in judgement on Glouces 
ter, and gouge out his eyes; a servant takes the law into his 
own hands and kills Cornwall; Edgar punishes Oswald and 
Edmund with death; France and Cordelia raise an army to 
right the affairs of Britain. Gloucester does his best to bring 
Edgar to justice. Lear is concerned with the more primitive 
thought of vengeance, and invokes the heavens and nature 
to aid him. His 'revenges' will be 'the terror of the earth* 
(n. iv. 285). The thought of justice burns in his mind during 
the storm: now can the gods 'find out their enemies'; hypo 
crites, with 'crimes unwhipp'd of justice' must tremble before 
'these dreadful summoners' (ui. ii. 49). He himself, however, 
is 'a man more sinned against than sinning* (in. ii. 60). But 
he next thinks of those in ragged poverty: it is well for pomp 
to take this tempestuous physic, exposure's misery, that so 
the rich may share their wealth and 'show the heavens more 
just' (in. iv. 36). His mind thus beating on Justice 1 , the old 
man's reason breaks and the same thought is expressed now 
in lunatic action. He holds his mock-trial of Goneril and 
Regan, with poor Tom as 'learned justicer' -'in. vi. 24): 

I'll sec their trial first. Bring in the evident, (:. vi. 38) 



192 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

Tom is the 'robed man of justice' and the Fool his 'yoke 
fellow of equity'; and Kent is V the commission*. The 
'honourable assembly * proves corrupt: 

Corruption in the place ! 
False justicer, why hast thou let her 'scape? (in. vi. 58) 

When we meet Lear again in madness (iv. vi.) we find him 
still on the same theme. He thinks himself in judicial 
authority : 

When I do stare, see how the subject quakes. 

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause ? 

Adultery? 

Thon shalt not die : die for adultery ! No : 

The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly 

Does lecher in my sight. (iv. vi. 1 1 1) 

He remembers that *Gloucester's bastard son* was kinder, 
as he thinks, to his father than his legitimate brother. Lear's 
mind in madness is penetrating below the surface shows to 
the heart of human reality that heart rooted in nature, 
uncivilized, instinctive as 'the small gilded fly'. The 'sim 
pering dame', apparently pure-minded and virtuous, is yet 
lecherous at heart: 

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't 

With a more riotous appetite. (iv. vi. 125) 

It is the old problem of Measure for Measure: man's ethics, 
his show of civilization, are surface froth only. The deep 
instinctive currents hold their old course, in earth, beast, and 
man. Man's morality, his idealism, his justice all are false 
and rotten to the core. Lear's mind has, since his first mad- 
scene, pursued its lonely orbit into the dark chaos of insanity, 
and now whirls back, in the fourth act, grotesque and baleful 
comet, with a penetrating insight into man's nature: whereas 
his first mad justice thoughts at the mock-trial were born 
of a primitive desire to avenge himself on his daughters. Now 
he returns, with a new justice-philosophy. He concentrates 
on the mockery and futility of human justice: 

Look with thine ears ; see how yond justice rails upon yond simple 
thief. Hark in thine car: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is 
the justice, which is the thief? (iv. vi. 155) 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE ^. 193 

A 'beggar' will run from a 'farmer's dog*. That is the great 
image, says Lear, of authority. *A dog's obeyed in office.' 
The beadle lusts himself to use the whore he whips. All is 
corrupt : 

Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Pkte sin with gold, 
And the strong knee of justice hurtless breaks. 

(iv. vi. 170) 

Therefore 'none does offend*. Lear's mind is ever on justice: 
tearing at it, worrying it, like a dog with a bone. And these 
thoughts of naturalistic psychology hold a profound sugges 
tion : they are a road to recognition of the universal injustice. 
For when earthly justice is thus seen to be absolutely non 
existent and, in fact, impossible, the concept of "justice* is 
drained of meaning. How then can we impose it on the 
universal scheme ? With a grand consistency the poet main 
tains this sense of universal injustice up to the last terrible 
moment of the tragedy. 

This question of human justice is, indeed, part of the wider 
question : that of universal justice. In the Lear universe we 
see humanity working at cross-purposes, judging, condemn 
ing, pitying, helping each other. They are crude justicers : 
Lear, unjust himself, first cries for human justice, then curses 
it. But he also cries for heavenly justice: so, too, others here 
cry out for heavenly justice. Their own rough ideas of equity 
force them to impose on the universal scheme a similar 
judicial mode. We, who watch, who view their own childish 
attempts, are not surprised that 'the gods* show little sign 
of a corresponding sense. According to human standards 
things happen here unjustly. The heavens do not send down 
to take Lear's part; his curses on Goneril and Regan have 
no effect. The winds will not peace at his bidding. Common 
servants demand that Heaven shall assert its powers: 

Sec. Servant. I'll never care what wickedness I do, 

If this "" come to good* 
TkirA $erea*t. If ihe H*e long, 

And in the end meet the old coarse of death, 

Women will all torn monsters. (HI* vii. 99} 

So, too, Albany cries that if 'the heavens* do not quickly 
'send down their visible spirits* to avenge the offences of man 



194 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

humanity will prey on itself like sea-monsters (iv. ii. 46), 
And when he hears of the servant's direct requital of 
Gloucester's wrong by the slaying of Cornwall, he takes 
it as proof of divine justice: 

This shows you are above, 
You justicers, that these our nether crimes 
So speedily can venge. (iv. ii. 78) 

And again: 

This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, 

Touches us not with pity. (v. iii. 233) 

But there is no apparent justification of the thought: men 
here are good or bad in and by themselves. Goodness and 
cruelty flower naturally, spontaneously. A common servant 
instinctively lays down his life for an ideal, because goodness 
is part of his nature; in another, his nature may prompt him 
to wrong, and so the captain promises to obey Edmund's 
dastardh command with these words: 

I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; 

If it be man's work, I'll do it. (v. iii. 39) 

His nature as a man, his station in life as a soldier, both seem 
to point him to obedience: again the emphasis is on nature 
and there is again the suggestion, percurrent in King Lear^ 
of animals and country life. The story of the play indeed 
suggests that wrongful action first starts the spreading poison 
of evil ; and that sin brings inevitable retribution. Lear suffers 
a mental torment for his unbalanced selfishness and short 
sightedness a mental fault; Gloucester loses his eyes, that 
'most pure spirit of sense' (Troitus and Cressida^ in. iii. 106) 
in return for his sensual fault: 

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices 

Make instruments to plague us : 

The dark and vicious pkce where thee he got 

Cost him his eyes. (v. iii. 172) 

But it is all a purely natural process: there is no celestial 
avatar, to right misguided humanity. The 'revenging gods' 
do not bend ill their thunders against parricides (n. i. 47). 
Wrongdoers are, it is true, punished: but there is no sense 
of divine action. It is Edgar's trumpet, symbol of natural 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 195 

judgement, that summons Edmund to account at the end, 
sounding through the Lear mist from which right and wrong 
at this moment^ emerge distinct. Right wins, surely as the 
sun rises: but it is a natural, a human process. Mankind 
work out their own 'justice', crime breaks the implicit laws 
of human nature, and brings suffering alike on good and bad. 
But not all the good persons suffer, whereas all the bad meet 
their end swiftly. This is the natural justice of feng Lear. 
To men, it must seem more like 'fortune* than 'justice 1 . Kent 
prays to 'fortune' to 'smile once more* and turn her wheel 
(n. ii. i 80). She does not do so. Lear is the natural fool of 
fortune' (iv. vi. 196). To men the natural justice seems often 
inconsiderate, blind, mechanic. The utmost antithesis is seen 
in the grim punishment of Cordelia for her 'most small fault'. 
But, from an objective view of the Lear universe, other facts 
regarding the universal justice emerge, and we begin to have 
sight of some vague purpose working itself out in terms of 
nature and of man. 

In King Lear we see humanity suffering. It is a play of 
creative suffering. Mankind are working out a sort of 
purgatory. The good ones know it; the bad seem not to. 
The good are sweetened, purified by adversity: the bad, as 
A. C. Bradley notes, are swiftly demoralized and brutalized 
by their success. Now those who turn their sufferings to 
profit endure with a fine stoicism. Kent is typically stoical 
throughout. There is stoic nobility in the Fool's patter of 
bitter fun. Edgar repeats this stoic theme, voicing the pur 
gatorial philosophy of the play in many contexts. After seeing 
Lear's madness he finds his own suffering miraculously 
eased. He speaks a soliloquy, saying that our miseries cease 
to be woes when we see our betters suffering too; when there 
is a partnership and fellowship of suffering, then pain is 
lessened it becomes 'light and portable 1 (in. vi. 111-19). 
He finds his state as poor Tom to hold comfort. To be thus 
outcast robs chance of power to hurt him : 

To be wont, 

The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, 
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear : 
The lamentable change is from the best; 
The worst returns to laughter. (iv. i. 2) 



196 THE LEAK UNIVERSE 

Therefore he welcomes the 'blasts' of 'unsubstantial air'. 
Extreme suffering steadies him on the rock of assurance: 
uncertainty and tear, worst sting of pain, are lacking. This 
quality, indeed, differentiates the Ltar from the Macbeth 
mode: King Lear shows a suffering from knowledge; 
Macbeth, a more ghastly agony of fear. Edgar, however, 
next sees his father: 

My father, poorly led ? World, world, O world ! 
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee, 
Life would not yield to age. (iv. i. 10) ^ 

He discovers Gloucester's blindness : 

gods ! Who is't can say *I am at the wont' ? 

1 *m worse than e'er I was. (rv. i. 25) 

He realizes that 

. . . worse I may be yet : the worst is not 

So long as we can say, This is the worst*. (iv. i. 27) 

Mankind are here continually being ennobled by suffering. 
They bear it with an ever deeper insight into their own 
nature and the hidden purposes of existence. 'Nothing 
almost sees miracles but misery* (n. ii. 172). In some strange 
way the suffering they endure enriches them, brings them 
peace. So Gloucester can give his purse to Edgar in disguise, 
joying in the thought that his misery makes another happy; 
and continuing with a replica of Lear's thought, prays the 
heavens to 'deal so still', forcing the rich to share their 
superfluity (iv. i. 67). Gloucester moves beyond self-interest, 
through suffering, to the nobility and grandeur of his prayer: 

O you mighty gods ! 

This world I do renounce, and, in your sights, 
Shake patiently my great affliction off: 
If I could bear it longer, and not fall 
To quarrel with your great opposekss wills, 
My snuff and loathed part of nature should 
Bum itself out. (iv. vi. 35) 

There follows his attempted suicide: finding himself alive, 
he fears there is no release from tyranny (iv. vi. 64), but 
Edgar cheers him, comforts him, saying that it was *some 
deviP who beguiled him into suicide; that 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 197 

the clearest gods, who make them honours 
Of men's impossibilities have preserved thee. 

(iv. vi. 74) 

He is to 'bear free and patient thoughts'. Then Lear enters 
in extravagant madness. Gloucester's sympathy wells up in 
the noble phrase : 

O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world 

Shall so wear out to nought. (iv. vi, 138) 

Gloucester and Edgar stand in a kind of reverence before 
Lear's anguish: Edgar's 'heart breaks at it' (iv. vi. 146). 
When Lear is gone, Gloucester prays for forgiveness from 
the 'gentle' gods strange epithet after the recent incidents : 

Gloucester* You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me ; 

Let not my worser spirit tempt me again 

To die before you please ! 
Edgar. Well pray you, father. 

(iv. vi. 222) 

Edgar, so often the voice of the Lear philosophy, has here, 
in leading his father to suicide, in saving him, and in pointing 
the moral in limning his picture of the fiend on the cliff 
edge, in urging that the gods have preserved him, in all this 
he is, as it were, the high-priest of this play's stoicism, of 
endurance which forbids a facile exit in self-murder. He 
understands his father's purgatorial destiny, and thus helps 
to direct it. He understands and sympathizes, since he 
himself is 

A most poor man, made tame to fortune's blows; 

Who by the art of known and feeling sorrows, 

Am pregnant to good pity. (iv. vi. 226) 

Now Gloucester speaks gently of 'the bounty and the benison 
of heaven' (iv. vi. 230). 

Strange paradox. It is strange, and very beautiful, to watch 
this burning purgatory, these souls so palely lit by suffering, 
aureoled and splendid in their grief. Each by suffering finds 
himself more truly> more surely knows the centre on which 
human fate revolves, more clearly sees the gods' mysterious 
beneficence. Gloucester is blind but he knows now that 
he 'stumbled when he saw'. We watch humanity, pained and 
relieving pain, and finding peace. Gloucester's purgatory was 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 



contingent on his first lending aid to Lear and raising the 
hate of the adverse party: thus an act of goodness buys the 
inestimable gift of purgatorial agony. But suicide cheats 
the high gods of their purpose. Once again, when Gloucester 
longs for death, Edgar answers: 

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure 
Their going hence, even as their coming hither. 
Ripeness is all. ( v - 9) 

That is, men must await ('endure') the destined hour of 
death, directing it no more than they direct the hour of 
birth: they must await till the harvest of their pain is ripe. 
Ripeness is all so Gloucester is matured by suffering, and 
his death, when it comes, is sweet. He finds his wronged 
son Edgar: 

... his flaw'd heart 

'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, 
Bunt smilingly. (* &. I9 8 ) 

The statement of King Lear on the suicide-problem which 
troubled Hamkt is, indeed, explicit. Man may not decide 
his awful entry into the unknown territory of death. That is 
to thwart 'the gods' of their purgatorial purpose. 

With Lear himself, too, ripeness is all. In the scene of his 
reunion with Cordelia, he wakes to music, like a mortal soul 
waking to immortality, to find his daughter bright as 'a soul 
in bliss 1 ; now both find the richness of love more rich for the 
interval of agony, misunderstanding, intolerance. Cordelia's 
sincerity was not, perhaps, wholly blameless: both were 
proud. Now love returns, enthroned: 'misery' has again 
worked its 'miracle 1 . All woman's motherly love is caught 
up in Cordelia's speech: 

Was this a face 

To be opposed against the warring winds ? 
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder? 
In the most terrible and nimble stroke 
Of quick, cross-lightning? to watch poor perdu- 
With this thin helm? Mine enemy's dog, 
Though he had bit me, should hive stood that night 
Against my fire; and wast thou lain, poor father, 
To hovel thee with swine, and rogues forlorn, 
In short and musty straw ? (rv. vii. 31) 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 199 

Lear is waked into love : now he is humble, he knows he is 
'a foolish fond old man* (iv. vii. 60). He will drink poison 
if Cordelia wishes it. His purgatory has been this: cruelly 
every defence of anger and pride that barriers his conscious 
ness from his deepest and truest emotion his love for 
Cordelia, whom he loved most, on whom he had thought 
to set his rest (r. i. 125) has been broken down. In those 
middle storm scenes we were aware of his hatred and 
thoughts of vengeance, together with a new-born sympathy 
addressed to suffering humanity throughout the world. Then 
the whirling ecstasies of lunacy: now the healing balm ofr 
uttermost humility and love. He humbles himself, not to 
Cordelia, but to the love now royally enthroned in his heart 
erstwhile usurped : 

Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish. 

(iv. vii. 84) 

His purgatory is almost complete; but not yet complete. 
From him a greater sacrifice than from Gloucester is de 
manded. He and Cordelia are now prisoners. Cordelia in 
adversity is a true daughter of this stoic world: 

We are not the first 

Who, with best meaning, have incurred the wont. 
For thee, oppressed King, am I cast down ; 
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown. 

(v. iii. 3) 

Lear, at this last moment, touches exquisite apprehensions. 
Now simple things will please. Formerly a king, intolerant, 
fierce, violent, whom any opposition roused to fury, now an 
old man ready to be pleased with simplest things: they will 
'talk of court news'; the gods themselves throw incense on 
such sacrifices; Lear and Cordelia will 

take upon *s the mystery of things 
As if we were God's spies. (v. iii. 16) 

God's spies, in truth: since Lear now sees only with eyes of 
love. Love is the last reality but one in Lear's story: love 
and God. Not the last. There are still the vague, inscrutable 
'gods' of the Lear mist, their purposes enigmatic, their 
actions inscrutable. There remains death. Death and *the 



2QO THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

go ds T if indeed those gods exist. Uttermost tragedy, and 
unknowing, senseless 'fortune', has its way at the end. Love 
and 'God' exist herein, transcendent for a while, in golden 
scenes where Cordelia is bright with an angel brightness. 
But they do not last, cannot free Lear finally from the fiery 
wheel of" mortal life: 

I am bound 

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears 

Do scald like molten lead. (v. vii. 46) 

On the wide canvas of this play three persons stand out 
with more vivid life than the rest: Edmund, Lear, Cordelia. 
They correspond to three periods in man's evolution the 
Brimjtjye, Jthe civilized, and the ideal. Edmund is a throw 
back in the evolutionary process. He is a 'natural* son of 
Gloucester, he is, as he tells us, a son of 'nature'. He is 
uncivilized; he rejects civilization because civilization has 
rejected him. He is unprincipled, cruel and selfish; but he has 
fascination. He has a kind ot sex-appeal about him. Goneril 
and Regan fall readily before his charm. He is beautiful as 
an animal, physically a paragon of animals, with an animal's 
lithe grace, a cat's heartless skill in tormenting the weak. 
Edmund is not cruel: he, catlike, lacks the gift of sympathy. 
He is playing a game. And he has an impudent charm of 
conscious superiority and sex-attraction. We cannot resist 
his appeal we are glad that so rich a personality meets his 
end with some dramatic colour. His life he has regulated with 
a theatrical sense, and he closes it with a touch of fine tragedy: 

Thou hast spoken right, 'tis true; 
The wheel is come full circle; I am here. (v. Hi. 175) 

This is a fitting conclusion to the schemes of Edmund; he 
is, as it were, always trying to stage a combination of events 
in which he shall figure prominently. He has a sense of his 
own romantic self-adventure. Witness his exquisite remark 
to Goneril before the battle: 

GmuriL My most dear Gloucester. 

Years in the ranks of death. 



. 

Lear himself is a complex of primitive and civilized elements: 
he is a selfish, high-tempered, autocratic old man. He is 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 2O1 

wrong-headed without being vicious. He deceives himself. 
He swerves from sentiment to cruelty: neither are real. He 
has in fact 'ever but slenderly known himself (i. i. 296). 
Then comes his purgatory, in the shape of a return to nature, 
a knowledge of his animal kinship, a wide and sweeping 
sympathy, a tempestuous mental torment on the tempest- 
riven heath. In madness thoughts deep-buried come to the 
surface: though at first he acts his futile desire for revenge 
in his mock-trial, later a finer lunatic apprehension glimpses 
profound human truths. His thoughts fix on the sex-inhibi 
tions of civilized man, delving into the truth of man's 
civilized ascent. He finds sex to be a pivot-force in human 
affairs, sugared though it be by convention. All human 
civilization and justice are a mockery. He is all the time 
working deep into that which is real, in him or others, facing 
truth, though it be hideous. He has been forced from a 
deceiving consciousness built of self-deception, sentiment, 
the tinsel of kingship and authority, to the knowledge of his 
own and others' nature. His courtiers lied to him, since he 
is not ague-proof (iv. vi. 108). He wins his purgatorial 
reward in finding that which is most real to him, his love 
for Cordelia. For the first time he compasses his own reality, 
and its signs are humility and love. He falls back on the 
simplicity of love: next of death. His purgatory then closes. 
This is the movement from civilization, through a return to 
nature and a revulsion from civilized man to death, which 
is later massively reconstructed in Timon of Athens. 

Cordelia., in_ that she ^represents the principle of love, is 
idealized: Edmund is of the past, Lear or the present, 
(forHefia of the future dispensation. She is like 'a soul in 
bliss'. Her tears are *holy water 1 and her eyes 'heavenly* 
(iv. iii. 32) : she alone here has both goodness and fascination. 
Kent and Albany are colourless, Edgar little more than a 
voice: Cordelia is conceived poetically, like Lear and 
Edmund. She is a personality, alive, tangible. There is thus 
an implicit suggestion of a time-succession about these three. 
They correspond to definite layers in the stratified philosophy 
of King Lear-, the bestial and pagan where life was young 
and handsome, from which human civilization has emerged ; 
the superficially civilized, yet far from perfect the present 



2O2 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

dispensation of unrestful, weary, misfeatured man; and, 
finally, the ideal. The purgatorial progress is a progress to 
self-knowledge, to sincerity: hence Cordelia's original 'fault* 
of ill-judged sincerity is one with her significance as a symbol 
of human perfection. This thought is implicitly stressed in 
the final speech of the play. She is of the future humanity, 
suffering in the present dispensation for her very virtue. Nor 
is this evolution-thought an irrelevant imposition: it is 
throughout implicit in King Lear. The play is a play of 
naturalism, of spiritual qualities represented as a natural 
growth. Humanity here is shown as kin to the earth and 
winds and animals: but some of the persons, being wicked, 
appear, in shape of men and women, unnatural; whereas 
the good, by following out their purgatorial pilgrimage, 
attain to a spiritual harmony in which they feel at home. This 
is equivalent to the statement that goodness is the natural 
goal of man, and the aim of evolution. Therefore at the end 
the danger of evil-doers is crushed. The good forces, not the 
evil, win: since good is natural, evil unnatural to human 
nature. Edgar and Albany are left to direct the 'gored state' 
to health. King Lear thus shows us the spiritual evolution 
of man : not one age, but all ages, of natural and human 
progress are suggested in its pages. 

In this analysis I have viewed the Lear universe objec 
tively. As a whole, the play has a peculiar panoramic quality. 
We can watch the persons below us, working their own ruin 
or their own purgatorial liberation. In this sense as in its 
naturalism the play resembles a Hardy novel. But this 
vision gives birth to one tremendous theme growing out 
from it. The figure of Lear stands out gigantic; the theme 
of his madness flames from this bleak world. The violent 
and extravagant effects of the storm-scene kindle the imagi 
nation till it cannot watch, but rather lives within, the pas 
sionate event. Then follows the extravaganza of Lear, Edgar, 
and the Fool, with their variegated play of the fantastic to 
the sound of thunder, lit by the nimble strokes of lightning. 
This is purely a phantasma of the mind: Lear's mind, 
capering on the page with antic gesture, creating the Goneril 
and Regan phantoms of the mock-trial to shimmer like 
mirage-figures in the dancing heat of unreason. Lear's mind 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 2O3 

encloses us here it is as a gash in the actualized fabric of 
the play, a rending of objective vision, laying bare the mental 
torment of Lear: this we do not watch, we live within it. 
We have a close-up of Lear's mind which becomes our mind: 
we burn through Lear's purgatorial agony. The effect is 
curious: the gash becomes bigger than the thing it cuts. It 
envelopes, encloses us. As we fed Lear's anguish, we know 
it to be the central thing in the play, the imaginative core and 
heart of the rest. But then the fire of this ecstatic fantasia dies 
down through the horror of Gloucester's torture to the per 
vading colourlessness : all is grey and wan whilst Edgar and 
Gloucester climb their purgatorial ascent. Again the spark 
of the imaginatively bizarre burns bright in the comedy of 
Gloucester's fall, and is quickly lashed into flame at the wind 
of Lear's entrance, crowned in flowers, ludicrous, terrifying, 
pitiable, preaching to us of infants who brawl and cry on this 
great stage of fools, flinging fiery sparks of unextinguishable 
thought from the catherine-wheel of his spinning mind. Then 
the white presence of Cordelia, with restorative kiss, and the 
remediate virtues of earth's simples, the kindly nurse of 
anguish, sleep, and the strains of music, are all interwoven 
in the awakening of Lear from the wheel of fire to a new 
consciousness of love. Nature, human love, music all blend 
in this transcendent scene : the agony of this play works up 
to so beautiful a moment, heavenly sweet, that one forgets 
the bleak world, the rough and cruel naturalism which gave 
it birth. The Lear-theme gathers itself through the rush of 
madness for this crescendo of silent beauty, a sudden blaze 
of light, in which the sweets of nature, the sweets of 
humanity, and, thirdly, some more divine suggestion in the 
strains of music, blend together to create in this natural 
world something of an unearthly loveliness. Though it does 
not last, it has yet fired the world and lives on. The natural 
ism of King Lear pales before this blinding shaft of trans 
cendent light. This is the justification of the agony, the 
sufferance, the gloom. Though once more the shadows close, 
it has existed, immortal, in its own right, bending to no 
natural law. From the travail of nature the immortal thing 
is born ; time has given birth to that which is timeless. 
These are the vivid, the fiery, things in Kixg Lean the 



204 THE LEAR 

tempestuous passion, the burning-wheel of mortal agony, 
the angel peace of a redeeming love; and then death, hideous 
and grinning the hanged Cordelia, and Lear's cracked 
heart: a mockery. As though the whole play in anguish 
brings to birth one transcendent loveliness, only to stamp 
it out, kill it. With Gloucester the recognition of his wronged 
son and death are simultaneous; his heart 'bursts smilingly'. 
For Lear there is no such joyful end. In face of the last_scene 
any detailed comment of purgatorial expiation, of spiritual 
purification, is but a limp and tinkling irrelevance. One 
comment only is justifiable : 

Break, heart; I prithee, break. (v. iii. 3H) 

The action has been whirled to the most terrifically agonized 
ending in Shakespeare. Now we think that golden love was 
but an oasis in a desert pilgrimage: no continuing city. 
Pain unbearable before gave place to merciful insanity. 
Now the last agony of the again gashed, impaled, quivering 
soul is more mercifully embalmed in death : 

Vex not his ghost : O, let him pass ! he hates him 

That would upon the rack of this tough world 

Stretch him out longer. (v. iii. 3 ' S) 

There is peace merciful and profound and calm. It is utterly 
dependent for its serenity and tranquillity on the pain it 
ends: that pain dependent on the transcendent beauty it has 
seen strangled. This is the absolute peace of death, of noth 
ingness, where consciousness was late stretched, hideously 
drawn out beyond endurance, on the rack of a life whose 
cruelty brings beauty to birth, whose beauty is its most 
agonizing cruelty. Wherein shall we seek our revelation 
in that deathless dream of love, or in this death? 

There are thus two primary qualities in King Lear: the 
panoramic view of good and bad people working out their 
destiny; and the fiery, passionate, grotesque Lear-theme 
which the pangs of this cold world bring to birth. The 
naturalism of the play travails to produce out of its earthly 
womb a thing or imaginative and miraculous splendour, 
high-pitched in bizarre, grotesque, vivid mental conflict and 
agony; which in turn pursues its rocket-flight of whirling 
madness, explosive, to the transcendent mystic awakening 



THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

into love, dropping bright balls of silent fire, then extin 
guished, as the last tragic sacrifice claims its own, and the 
darkness closes. This is the sweeping ascent of the Lear- 
theme, rushing, whistling in air, a sudden visionary bril 
liance, and many colours across the heavens, expanding 
petals of jewelled flame; next falling back to earth: a comet- 
like progress, leaving trails of fire to streak for an instant the 
dark mid-air which again entombs the Lear universe at the 
end, as man battles on to make more history, to bring to 
birth another Lear and another miracle of love. But these 
two modes are not in reality distinct: the one grows from 
the other, they are interfused, intrinsicate. We cannot untie 
the knot of the divine twisted with the earthly. Here the 
emphasis is everywhere on naturalism. No strong religious 
phraseology or suggestion is maintained throughout: 'the 
gods' are vague, symbols of groping mankind : imaginative 
transcendence grows out of the naturalism, is not imposed 
on it. The symbolic effects are thus never contrary to natural 
possibility. The tempest is fierce indeed there are 'such 
sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid flame* that *man's nature 
cannot carry the affliction nor the fear* (m. ii. 46). There 
are 'groans of roaring wind and rain': but there are no 
'lamentings heard i' the air, strange screams of death', as 
in that other more ghastly tempest in Macbeth. The animal- 
symbolism throughout King Lear is everywhere natural, 
rooted in nature, in country life. Here horses do not *eat 
each other', nor does 'the mousing owl' prey on the 'towering 
falcon'. The imaginative effects are strongly emphasized, 
but always within natural law. In Macbeth we find an 
abnormal actuality subservient to the imaginative vision; 
in King Lear an imaginative vision emergent from a pure 
naturalism. The two modes are bridged by the animal- 
symbolism, since these numerous references serve a dual 
purpose, both insisting on man's kinship with nature 
especially, here, nature ugly as a mongrel-cur and also 
lending themselves at the same time to the extravagant and 
bizarre effects of madness. But madness itself is the disjoint 
ing of mind by the tug of conflicting principles: the animal 
and the divine; the past and the future. Man's agony is thus 
the wrenching of futurity from the inertia of animal life. The 



206 THE LEAR UNIVERSE 

dual purposes of this animal-symbolism are thus in reality 
one. This Shakespearian symbolism, here and in Macbeth 
and Julius Caesar, is fundamental to our understanding: its 
peculiar nature tunes our consciousness in each to the exact 
pitch of the peculiar vision we are to receive. 

The naturalism of King Lear is agnostic and sombre often, 
and often beautiful. Human life is shown as a painful, slow 
struggle, in which man travails to be born from animal- 
nature into his destined inheritance of human nature and 
supreme love. Unhappy, his mind torturingly divided in 
his world; yet, by suffering and sympathy, he may attain to 
mystic recognition and praise his gods. Here the cruel and 
wolf-hearted bring disaster on themselves and others: evil 
mankind is self-slaughterous, self-contradictory. But even 
they know love and die in its cause. The primary persons, 
good and bad, die into love. Goneril and Regan, flint- 
hearted, bend before that universal principle. They die by 
passion for their Edmund, beautiful as a panther, and as 
deadly. They, like he, are below humanity: yet they know 
love. So, too, in the ravenous slaughter of wood or ocean, 
love rules creation. That universal pulse is strong within the 
naturalism of King Lear y beats equally in the hearts of 
Goneril and Cordelia. And what of Edmund? He has loved 
only himself, with a curious consciousness of his own fasci 
nation. May that be counted love? Edmund does not dis 
close his order for Cordelia's death which would, according 
to his cunning device, never otherwise have been laid to his 
charge till, seeing the bodies of Goneril and Regan brought 
in, his heart is flamed by the tragic pathos of their passionate 

sacn ce: y e t Edmund was beloved. (7.111.242) 

He recognizes love at last, its mystery, its power, its divinity. 
He knows himself to die aureoled in its unresisted splendour. 
Now he speaks quickly: 

I pant for life : some good I mean to do, 

Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send, 

Be brief in it, to the castk; for my writ 

Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia : 

Nay, send in time. (v. in- 245) 

Again the Lear universe travails and brings forth its miracle. 



THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: AN- ESSAY 
ON TIMON OF ATHENS 

IN this essay I outline the nature of a tragic movement 
more precipitous and unimpeded than any other in 
Shakespeare; one which is conceived on a scale even more 
tremendous than that of Macbeth and King Lear\ and whose 
universal tragic significance is of all most clearly apparent. 
My purpose will be to concentrate on whatever is of positive 
power and significance, regarding the imaginative impact 
as all-important however it may appear to contradict the 
logic of human life. My analysis will first characterize the 
imaginative atmosphere of the early acts and indicate its 
significance as a setting for the personality of Timon; next, 
it will show how the subsidiary persons and choric speeches 
are so presented that our sympathy is directed into certain 
definite channels; and, finally, I shall point the nature of 
the second half of the play, contrasting it strongly with the 
earlier acts and indicating the reversal of symbolic sugges 
tion. Such an analysis will inevitably reveal important ficts 
as to the implicit philosophy, exposing its peculiar univer 
sality, and the stark contrast of the partial and imperfect 
nature of humanity and the world or the senses with the 
strong aspiration toward infinity and perfection and the 
ultimate darkness of the unknown embodied in the two 
parts of the play. 

The first acts convey the impression of riches, ease, sen 
suous appeal, and brilliant display. The curtain rises on a 
blaze of magnificence and the first persons are the Poet, 
Painter, Jeweller, and Merchant. In no play of Shakespeare 
is the opening more significant. Art, wealth, trade are repre 
sented, things which stand for human intercourse, progress, 
civilization, worldly success and happiness. Here poet and 
painter enjoy leisure to hold forth on their art, and jeweller 
and merchant await high payment for their wares. In the 
early acts we are continually reminded of wealth, Ventidius 

207 



208 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

is left 'rich' by his father (i. ii. 4); Lucullus dreams of 'a 
silver basin and ewer 1 (in. i. 6); talents are thrown about like 
pence. Many other coins and fine articles are mentioned: 
we hear of solidares, crowns, 'money, plate, jewels and such 
like trifles' (in. ii. 23); of 'jewels' and Vich jewels' ; a 'casket', 
diamonds, and silver goblets. Timon appears boundlessly 
rich: 

If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog, 

And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold. (ix. i- 5) 

We hear that 

Plutus, the god of gold, 
Is but his steward. (i- i- 287) 

Metaphors from metal occur : 

Let molten coin be thy damnation, (HI. i. 5^) 

and 

They have all been touched and found base metal. 

(HI. iii. 6) 

Silver dishes are hurled by Timon at his flatterers : 

Stay, I will lend thee money, borrow none. (in. vi. 112) 

These acts scintillate with the flash of gold coins and rich 
metals and stones. They delight the imagination's eye and 
touch, as the glittering proper names delight the ear. These, 
however, are but elements in a single effect of wealth, ease, 
refined luxury, and, in the earliest scenes especially, sensuous 
joy. Feasting is continual and elaborate: 

A banqueting-room in Timon's House. Hautboys pkying loud music. 
A great banquet served in; Fkvius and others attending ... (i. ii) 

Visitors are announced by the sound of trumpets. Besides 
feasting and music, we have images of visual delight meti 
culously described. The poet looks at the painting: 

Admirable: how this grace 
Speaks his own standing ! what a mental power 
This eye shoots forth I how big imagination 
Moves in this lip ! to the dumbness of the gesture 
One might interpret. (1.1.31) 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 2O9 

Timon later praises the same picture. We have a vivid and 
lengthy description of the poet's symbolical work (i. i. 43- 
94), and the painter outlines its visual possibilities in his 
'condition* of plastic art. Beautiful animals are mentioned, 
such as 'greyhounds' (i. ii. 198), a 'bay courser* (i. ii. 220), 
and 'four milk-white horses trapped in silver* (x. ii. 192). 
All these things, gifts of Fortune to those she wafts to her 
with her 'ivory hand* (i. i. 71), build up an atmosphere of 
visual delight. All the senses are catered for: hence, after 
the feasting and music, there is a mask introduced by a 
boy-Cupid : 

Cupid. Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all 
That of his bounties taste ! The five best senses 
Acknowledge thee their patron ; and come freely 
To gratulate thy plenteous bosom ; th* ear, 
Taste, touch, smell, pleased from thy table rise : 
They only now come but to feast thine eyes. (i. ii. 1 30) 

The emphasis on the 'senses' is apparent. Timon bids his 
'music* welcome the maskers. Then (i. ii): 

Music. Re-enter Cupid, with a mask of Ladies as Amazons, with lutes 
in their hands, dancing and playing. 

And, 

The Lords rise from table, with much adoring of Timon; and to show 
their loves, each singles out an Amazon, and all dance, men with women, 
a lofty strain or two to the hautboys, and cease. 

Timon thanks the maskers and invites them to an 'idle ban 
quet*. We are lost in a riot of display, a gold-mist of romance 
and pleasures of the senses. The setting is brilliant, the 
wealth apparently inexhaustible, the pleasures free. We can 
imagine the rich food and wine, the blare and clash of music, 
embraces, laughter, and passages of glancing love; the 
coursing of blood, the flushed cheek, the mask of fair dancers 
and Cupid. 

Timon's world is sensuous and erotic, yet not vicious or 
ignoble. Even in Flavius* denunciation of Timon 's way of 
life, a grand profusion, an aristocratic brilliance and richness 
of entertainment yet pleasures us : 

So the gods bless me, 
When all oar offices have been oppress'd 
With riotous feeders, when our vaults have wept 



2IO THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

With drunken spilth of wine, when every room 

Hath blazed with lights and bray'd with minstrelsy, 

I have retired me to a wasteful cock, 

And set mine eyes at flow. (H. ii. 167) 

And that is the voice of reproof, when the bright day of 
thoughtless expenditure is done. Whilst it is in act, we are 
carried away by the magnificence of the effects, and our 
imaginations are kindled by the vivid pulse of entertainment, 
feast, friendship, and music. The poetry of the senses is 
lived before our eyes, yet withal there is refinement, courtesy, 
aesthetic taste, for this world is lorded by the rich heart of 
Timon. The early atmosphere of Timon of Athens is thus as 
the poetic atmosphere of Antony and Cleopatra. In both there 
is the same kind of atmospheric technique that focuses our 
vision to the unique differing worlds of gloom of Macbeth 
and King Lear\ and in both this sensuous blaze is conceived 
as a setting for a transcendent love. Only by subduing our 
more independent faculties in abeyance to the imaginative 
quality of these early scenes shall we receive the play as 
poetry and know its meaning. A true interpretative faculty in 
the reader must be the bride of the poet's imagination, since 
only so can it give birth to understanding. So, by dwelling 
inwardly on the points I have adduced to indicate the imagi 
native quality of Timon 's setting, our consciousness will be, 
as it were, tuned to respond to and appreciate the true erotic 
richness of Timon *s soul. 

The world of Timon and the soul of Timon are thus 
interdependent, and our consideration of the total imagina 
tive impact illuminates his personality. Though at first sight 
there may seem something barbaric and oriental in Timon's 
generosity and sense of display, yet we are confronted in 
reality not with barbarism, but humanism. The impressions 
I have noted do not indicate relics of the past though the 
best of a romantic Hellenism and of an Elizabethan aris 
tocracy have contributed something but an idealized per 
fected civilization. Timon himself is the flower of human 
aspiration. His generosity lacks wisdom, but is itself noble; 
his riches reflect the inborn aristocracy of his heart; his 
pleasures, like his love of friends, are in themselves excellent, 
the consummations of natural desire and in harmony with 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 21 I 

the very spirit of man's upward endeavour towards the reality 
of art, the joys of civilization, and love universal. Timon's 
world is poetry made real, lived rather than imagined. He 
would break down with conviviality, music, art, the barriers 
that sever consciousness from consciousness. He would build 
a paradise of love on earth. Now just as Tirnon's love of sweet 
things, though not gluttonous nor vicious, is yet eminently 
a thing of the senses and unrestrained; so, too, his affection 
for his friends, to which the rest is a setting and a direction 
of our sympathies, is no pale and sainted benevolence, no 
skeleton philanthropy nor ice-cold chanty. His love, too, is 
the love not of the saint, but the lover; a rich erotic per 
ception welling up from his soul, warm-blooded, instinctive, 
romantic and passionate. It is the love of Othello for Des- 
demona, of Antony for Cleopatra, of Shakespeare for the 
fair boy of the Sonnets. These we understand; so, too, we 
form some contact with the self-renouncing, ascetic, all- 
embracing love of the saint. But Timon's is the passionate, 
somewhat selfish, love of one lover for another, physical and 
spiritual, of the senses as of the soul ; yet directed not toward 
one creature or one purpose but expanding its emotion 
among all men. 

Timon is a universal lover, not by principle but by nature. 
His chanty is never cold, self-conscious, or dutiful. He 
withholds nothing of himself. His praise to the painter 
(i. i. 161) is sincere appreciation; his jests with the jeweller 
(i. i. 167) kind and not condescending; his chance of 
doing good to his servant whose lack of wealth forbids his 
desired marriage is one of those god-sent adventures in 
kindness that make the life of Timon a perpetual romance. 
His heaven is to see the young man's eyes brimming with 
joy. He hates the least suggestion of insincerity and scorns 
ceremony : 

Nay, my lords, 

Ceremony was but devised at first 
To set a gloss on feint deeds, hollow welcomes, 
Recanting goodness, sorry ere 'tis shown; 
But where there is true friendship, there needs none. 
Pray, sit; more welcome are ye to my fortunes 
Than my fortunes to me. 0- " 1 5) 



2J2 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

He does not doubt that his friends would, if occasion called, 
reciprocate his generosity, and an excess of emotion at the 
thought brings tears to his eyes: 

. Why, I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come nearer 
to you We are born to do benefits : and what better or properer can we 
call our own than the riches of our friends? what a precious comfort 
'tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes ! 
O joy, e'en made away ere't can be born I Mine eyes cannot hold out 
water, mctiiinks: to forget their faults, I drink to you. 

(i. ii. 105) 

There is no shame in this confession of tears: he lives in a 
world of the soul where emotion is the only manliness, and 
love the only courage. If, as Shakespeare's imagery some 
times suggests, the lover sees his own soul symbolized in 
his love, then we can say that Timon projects himself into 
the world around him; mankind is his own soul; a resplen 
dent and infinite love builds an earthly paradise where it 
may find complete satisfaction in the inter-communion of 
heart with heart, and gift with gift. If this transcendent love 
can be bodied into shapes and forms which are finite; if the 
world of actuality and sense does not play Timon false 
then humanism can thrive without religion, and an earthly 
paradise is no deceiving dream. 

The poet has shown us a supreme lover. Love is presented, 
for purposes of the play, alone, unmixed with judgement. 
Timon's generosity is extreme, and his faith child-like. But 
we are not left free to criticize his acts. Even though we were 
to remain insensible to the imaginative atmosphere and the 
hero's lovable personality, the subsidiary characters are so 
drawn as to heighten, not lessen, our respect for Timon; and 
as the first gold-haze of romance and sensuous appeal thins 
with the progress of the first three acts, and shapes of per 
sonification stand out clear and solid, this element of tech 
nique becomes increasingly important. The most striking 
subsidiary figure is Apemantus. Contrasted with Timon's 
faith and love, we have a churlish cynicism and disgust. 
Timon is a universal lover, Apemantus a universal cynic. 
His mind functions in terms ot the foul, bestial, and stupid 
ibutes of man (i. i. 1 78-249). He makes lascivious jests, 
baths the shape of man powerfully as Timon loves it: 



AN ESSAY ON T1MOX OF ATHENS 213 

The strain of man* s bred out 
Into baboon and monkey. (i. i. 260) 

And, 

What a coil's here ! 
Serving of becks and jutting out of bums ! (i. ii. 239) 

His cynicism is a compound of ridicule, foul suggestion, and 
ascetic philosophy. Timon shows him a picture: 

Timon. Wrought he not well that painted it ? 

Apcmantus. He wrought better that made the painter; and yet he'* but a 
filthy piece of work. (i. i. 201) 

Thus swiftly are condemned God, man, and man's aspiration 
and endeavour. The pregnancy of this answer is amazing 
in its compactness and the pojgnance of its sting. As he 
watches the observances of respect, the greetings and smiles 
attendant on Alcibiades' entry, he comments: 

So, so, there ! 

Aches contract and starve your supple joints ! 
That there should be small love 'mongst these sweet knaves, 
And all this courtesy ! (i. i. 257} 

Entertainment is a mockery to him, for his thoughts are 
centred on the transience of shows, the brittleness of the 
armour of manners with which civilized man protects the 
foulness within from the poisoned dart of truth. Therefore 
he sits apart during the feast, refusing the food of Timon, 
gnawing roots, drinking water. Masquers enter, and he 
comments : 

Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way ! 

They dance ! They are mad women. 

Like madness is the glory of this life. 

As this pomp shows to a little oil and root. (i. ii. 139} 

He is anxious to warn Timon, feeling that he is too noble 
for the company that wastes his means : 

... It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man's blood ; and 
all the madness is, be cheers them up too. (i. ii. 42) 

His respect for Timon is, however, clearly noted: 

Even he drops down 

The knee before him and returns in peace 
Most rich in Timon's nod. (i. i. 61) 



214 THr PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

Therefore the presence of Apemantus serves many purposes. 
It points us to the insincerity of Timon's friends and the 
probable course of events; it shows us that even the cynic 
cannot help but honour and respect Timon; and it makes 
us feel how repellent is this very cynicism, which is the 
opposite of Timon 's faith and love. Apemantus thus enlists 
our respect for Timon, and even at their final meeting, when 
Timon has left Athens, we are again shown that Timon's 
hate is not as Apemantus*. 

But we are repelled not alone by the churlish philosopher : 
we are even more repelled by the false friends of Timon. 
The incident of Lucullus' refusal is exquisitely comic, yet 
bitterly satiric. Nothing more meanly unpleasant could 
well be imagined, and yet its truth to human nature cannot 
be denied. His greed, flattery, hypocrisy, and finally open 
confession of baseness, are drawn in swift, masterly strokes, 
culminating in : 

'Here *s three solidares for thee; good boy, wink at me, and say thou 
saw'st me not,* and 'Ha ! now I see thou art a fool and fit for thy master. 1 

(in. i. 47, 53) 

Lucius comes off little better (in. ii). Ventidius, whom 
Timon has generously redeemed from prison, is found 'base 
metal* (HI. iii. 6). And Sempronius, hearing of the failure 
of other friends of Timon, whom he himself had suggested 
were more indebted than he, refuses at last angrily on the 
score of his hurt feelings at being the last to whom Timon 
sends. Flavious' description of his failure to raise a loan is 
powerful enough (11. ii. 21423). All these incidents are 
clearly presented to indicate the meanness inherent in these 
specimens of humanity. The dice are heavily loaded. Our 
judgements have no choice. Neither the friends of Timon 
nor Apemantus can usurp our sympathy. The poet and 
painter whatever they may be as artists are also depicted 
as time-servers: towards the end of the play, when they 
come to Timon to gain his favour, their dialogue with each 
other exposes their clear hypocrisy. In addition, the short 
scene between Alcibiades and the Senate (in. v) 1 tends 

1 Z believe the authenticity of this scene has been questioned. But it has some phrase* 
in the finest Shakespearian idiom. Possibly the text is bad in places. One speech (IL 24-37) 
is fairly jbvkwsly an instance of prose misprinted as verse. The scene reads rather like 
piece of hurried and unrevised work. 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 

further to enlist our dislike of the community in which Tirnon 
lives. It suggests that Athens is suffering from an ingrateful 
and effete generation, greedy and mean. Says Alcibiades: 

I have kept back their foes, 
While they have told their money and let out 
Their coin upon large interest, I myself 
Rich only in large hurts. (in. v. 108) 

This reference to the state's greed and the usury 'that 
makes the senate ugly' (in. v. 101) serves to link the theme 
of Alcibiades with that of Timon's friends. We know, too, 
that Timon has put his fortune at the Senate's disposal. He 
tells Flavius to go 

to the senators 

Of whom, even to the state's best health, I have 
Deserved this hearing bid *em send o* the instant 
A thousand talents to me. (ii. ii. 206) 

Later, when they need his help, they confess 'forgetfulness 
too general, gross* (v. i. 149); and Alcibiades, speaking to 
Timon, talks of 

. . . cursed Athens, mindless of thy worth, 

Forgetting thy great deeds, when neighbour states, 

But for thy sword and fortune, trod upon them . . . (IT. iii. 93) 

The theme of Alcibiades is close-woven with that of Timon, 
and both endure ingratitude from the Senate, symbol of the 
state of Athens. We feel, in fact, that Timon's personality 
alone is responsible for any pleasure we have received in this 
Athens. It is a state of greed and ingratitude. The fine flower 
of civilization to which I have referred is evidently not in 
itself existent here, but purely a projection of Timon's mind. 
There are, however, certain persons who appear both good 
and rational: all these emphasize Timon's nobility. 

It is noticeable, indeed, that references to Timon's nobility 
arc continual throughout. We hear that he has *a noble spirit* 
(i. ii. 14); he is 

A most incomparable man, breathed, as it were, 

To an untirabJe and contmuate goodness. (i. i- 10) 

We hear of his 'good and gracious nature' (i. i. 57}; his "noble 
nature* (n. ii. 218); his 'right noble mind* (HI. ii. 88); that 



THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

'he outgoes the very heart of kindness* (i. i. 286) and that 

the noblest mind he carries 
That ever governed man. 0- i- 292) 

Timon's words 'unwisely, not ignobly have I given* (n. ii. 
184) hold finality. Such references are scattered throughout 
the play and their effect on us is powerful, even though they 
be sometimes spoken by insincerity. But the next group of 
persons to be noticed are evidently sincere: they are (i) the 
'Strangers' who play a purely choric part, and (ii) Timon's 
Servants. It is to be observed that these, who alone express 
a balanced and rational view, all love and honour Timon, 
and remark on this instance of his betrayal as significant of 
a universal and fundamental human truth. I have noted that 
Timon is a universal lover: again we are directed to the 
universality of the theme here presented. Three Strangers, 
who have heard Lucius' refusal, comment thereon : 

First Strtxgtr. Do yon observe this, Hostilius? 

Sew&d Stranger. Ay, too well. 

First Stranger. Why, this is the world's soul; and just of the same piece 

Is every flatterer's spirit. Who can call him 

His friend that dips in the same dish? for, in 

My knowing, Timon has been this lord's father, 

And kept his credit with his purse, 

Supported his estate ; nay, Timon's money 

Has paid his men their wages : he ne'er drinks, 

But Timon's silver treads upon his lip; 

And yet O, see the monstrousness of man 

When he looks out in an ungrateful shape i 

He does deny him, in respect of his, 

What charitable men afford to beggars. 
Third Stranger. Religion groans at it. (HI. ii. 71) 

The purpose and effect of this as expressing the meaning of 
the play's movement need no comment. It is the same with 
Timon's servants. Flaminius has discovered Lucullus' base 
ness, and thrown back the offered bribe. Lucullus leaves him 
and he soliloquizes: 

May these add to the number that may scald thee ! 
Let molten coin be thy damnation, 
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself! 
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart. 
It turns in less than two nights? O you gods, 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 217 

I feel my master's passion ! this slave, 

Unto his honour, has my lord's meat in him : 

Why should it thrive and turn to nutriment, 

When he is turn'd to poison? 

O, may diseases only work upon't ! 

And, when he 's sick to death, let not that part of nature 

Which my lord paid for, be of any power 

To expel sickness, but prolong his hour ! (HI. i. 5 5) 

This speech occurs when the action is working up to its 
tremendous climax, and embodies the tremor heralding 
eruption. Here civilization is beginning to assume a hideous 
guise, and man's form to appear as the painted outside to 
an inward filth. We feel the damming up of some mighty 
current, the impetuous and curbless love which is in Timon 
and we are more than half aware of its awful impending 
release. This speech, and the similar one of the Servant at 
in. iii. 27-42, serve to direct our minds in sympathy 
toward the future hate of Timon. One only of his servants 
dares to criticize the master they all love: Flavius. His 
dialogue with Timon in Act n is supremely beautiful in the 
large-hearted simplicity and faith of master and servant: 

F/avius. Heavens, have I said, the bounty of this lord ! 

How many prodigal bits have slaves and peasants 

This night englutted ! Who is not Timon's? 

What heart, head, sword, force, means, but is Lord Timon'*? 

Great Timon, noble, worthy, royal Timon ! 

Ah, when the means are gone that buy this praise, 

The breath is gone whereof this praise is made : 

Feast-won, fast-lost; one cloud of winter showers, 

These flies are couch'd. 
Timon. Come, sermon me no further : 

No villainous bounty yet hath pass'd my heart; 

Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given. 

Why dost thou weep? Canst thou the conscience lack, 

To think I shall lack friends? Secure thy heart; 

If I would broach the vessels of my love, 

And try the argument of hearts by borrowing, 

Men and men's fortunes could I frankly use 

As I can bid thee speak. (" *74) 

Flavius, in his great love for Timon, throughout the play 
draws us too in faith to his master, even when his words 
most clearly limn his faults. And in soliloquy after Timon's 



Zl8 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE 

retirement from Athens, his love wells up in a noble eulogy 
of his lord : 

Poor honest lord, brought low by his own heart, 

Undone by goodness ! Strange, unusual blood, 

When man's worst sin is, he does too much good ! 

Who, then, dares to be half so kind again? 

For bounty, that makes gods, does still mar men. 

My dearest lord, bless'd, to be most accursed, 

Rich, only to be wretched, thy great fortunes 

Are made thy chief afflictions. (iv. ii. 37) 

The intrinsic and absolute blamelessness of Timon's 
generosity is emphasized. Timon's 'fault' is essential love, 
essential nobility, unmixed with any restraining^ faculty of 
criticism. He is spontaneous in trust and generosity. 'Every 
man has his fault 1 , says LucuIIus, 'and honesty is his' 
(in. i. 30). The heartVgold of Timon is alloyed with no 
baser metal of intellect. 

The faithfulness of Timon's Servants is indeed a major 
theme in the drama. After the final failure, and Timon's 
retirement to the woods, they meet, not as servants to the 
same lord, but rather as disciples to a loved and world- 
crucified master. It is significant that, though cast adrift 
in poverty, it is the loss of their lord, and the iniquity of 
his friends, that grieve them most: 
First Servaxt. Such a house broke ! 

So noble a master faB'n ! All gone ! and not 

One friend to take his fortune by the arm, 

And go along with him I 
Second Servant. As we do turn our backs 

From our companion thrown into his grave, 

So his familiars to his buried fortunes 

Slink all away, leave their false vows with him, 

Like empty purses pick'd; and his poor self, 

A dedicated beggar to the air, 

With his disease of all-shunn'd poverty, 

Walks, like contempt, alone. (iv. ii. 5) 

It is as though the spirit of Timon's former love and gene 
rosity has settled among them as an everlasting bond of love. 
We begin to know that we have been watching something 
more than the downfall of a noble gentleman: 

TJM Servant. Vet do onr hearts wear Timon's livery ; 
That see I by our faces; we are fellows still, 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 219 

Serving alike in sorrow : leak'd is our bark, 
And we, poor mates, stand on the dying deck, 
Hearing the surges threat : we must all part 
Into this sea of air. 
Flaoius. Good fellows all, 

The latest of my wealth I'll share amongst you. 

Wherever we shall meet, for Timon's sake, 

Let's yet be fellows; let's shake our heads, and say, 

As 'twere a knell unto our master's fortunes, 

*We have seen better days'. Let each take some; 

Nay, put out all your hands. Not one word more : 

Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor. (iv. ii. 17) 

*Nay, put out all your hands'. . . . The still poetry of deepest 
emotion, the grandest simplicity of the human soul, indeed 
do not sound their noblest notes in this play till the pages 
thereof are become Vich in sorrow': and then they touch 
a music, as in this speech, of a more wondrous simplicity and 
a more mighty and heart-quelling beauty than anything in 
King Lear or Othello. This, however, is to forestall. This 
scene occurs after the shadow of eternity has overcast the 
drama. 

Enough has been said to indicate the nature of the tech 
nique that loads and all but overcharges the first part of this 
play with a clear honour and love of Timon's generosity and 
free-hearted soul; that indicts an overplus of humanity with 
the uttermost degree of despisal; that leaves us in the naked 
knowledge of the inevitable ignition and the dynamite of 
passion that thunders, reverberates, and dies into silence 
through the latter acts. The poet unfalteringly directs our 
vision: to ignore the effect of these massed speeches con 
demning Timon's friends and all but deifying Timon is to 
blur our understanding, to refuse the positive and single 
statement of this the most masterfully deliberate of Shake 
speare's sombre tragedies. Then shall we fail before the deep 
music of the two final acts. But if yet more definite indication 
be needed, it is to be found in the Poet's early speech, a 
unique Shakespearian introduction to his own play: 

I have, in this rough work, shaped out a man, 

Whom this beneath work! doth embrace and hug 

With amplest entertainment ... 0- - 44) 

It is all there, a clear description of the play's theme. Even 



22O THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

the peculiar universality is clearly noted, especially in the 

next lines: 

... my free drift 

Halts not particularly, but moves itself 
In a wide sea of wax : no levell'd malice 
Infects one comma in the course I hold ; 
But flies an eagle flight, bold and forth on, 
Leaving no tract behind. (* i- 4^) 

This is manifestly not true of Shakespeare's Poet, who has 
composed his poem for Timon alone, but profoundly true 
of Shakespeare himself. Again: 

Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill 

FeignM Fortune to be throned : the base o' the mount 

Is rank'd with all deserts, all kind of natures, 

That labour on the bosom of this sphere 

To propagate their states : amongst them all, 

Whose eyes are on this sovereign kdy fir'd, 

One do I personate of Lord Timon's frame, 

Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her; 

Whose present grace to present slaves and servants 

Translates his rivals. (1- i- 64) 

The sequel is as the action of Timon of Athens* Thus Timon 
of Athens is a parable, or allegory;^ its rush of power, its 
clean-limned and massive simplicity, its crystal and purposive 
technique all these are blurred and distorted if we search 
for exact verisimilitude with the appearances of human life. 
It is sublimely unrealistic. But if we recognize its universal 
philosophic meaning, it is then apparent in all its profundity 
and masterly construction. We are here judging the chances 
of the spirit of perfected man to embrace Fortune and find 
love truly interfused in this 'beneath world': to build his 
soul's paradise on 'the bosom of this sphere*. Thus Timon 
is the archetype and norm of all tragedy. 

Now creditors swarm round Timon in his own hall, 
greedy for the gold which to Timon is alone rich as the 
symbol of the heart's blood and pulse of friendship : 



Tifft&t. The pkce which I have feasted, does it now, 

Like all mankind, show me an iron heart? (HI. iv. 84) 

They press round him, insistent: 

Times. Cut my heart in sums. 
Titus. Mine, fifty talents. 



AN ESSAY ON TIMOff OF ATHENS 221 

Timon. Tell out my blood. 

Lucius 3 Servant. Five thousand crowns, my lord. 

Timon. Five thousand drops pays that. What yours ? 
and yours ? 

First Parro's Servant. My lord, 

Second Varrtfs Servant. My lord, 

Timon. Tear me, take me, and the gods fall upon you ! 

(HI. iv. 94) 

This is all we see of the transition : when next Timon appears 
the iron of enduring hate has entered his soul. True, he has 
one more banquet; invites his friends to it; withholds his 
rage till he has made one speech of withering sconi then 
volleys the titanic fury of his kingly nature in hate sovereign 
as tremendous as his sovereign love. There is no tragic move 
ment so swift, so clean-cut, so daring and so terrible in all 
Shakespeare as this of Timon. We pity Lear, we dread for 
Macbeth: but the awfulness of Timon, dwarfing pity and 
out-topping sympathy, is as the grandeur and menace of the 
naked rock of a sky-lifted mountain, whither we look and 
tremble. Deserting Athens, he steps from time into eternity. 
The world of humanity tilts over, and is reversed. We see 
now, not with the vision of man, but henceforth with that 
of the aspiring spirit of love that has scorned mankind for 
ever. Timon will tolerate no disorder, within and without 
his mind, like Lear, torn betwixt love and loathing, division 
which is madness. The chaos which his imprecations are to 
call on man will be as a concord within the soul of him 
whose love is reversed, and who is no longer of this world. 
Thus Timon preserves the grander harmony of loneliness 
and universal loathing, and fronts his destiny, emperor still 
in mind and soul, wearing the imperial nakedness of hate. 
This unswerving majesty is a grander thing than the barbaric 
fury of Othello, or the faltering ire of Lear. The heart Vgold 
in Timon has seen the ingrateful and miserly greed that 
would coin for use the infinity of a great soul's love. So 
Timon leaves Athens. 

His long curses are epics of hatred, unrestrained, limitless, 
wild. The whole race of man is his theme. His love was ever 
universal, now his hate is universal, its theme embraces every 
grade, age, sex, and profession. He hates the very shape, the 
'semblable' of man (iv. iii. 22). Timon's love, itself an infinity 



222 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

of emotion, was first bodied into finite things; finite humanity, 
the sense-world of entertainment and art and those symbols 
and sacraments of love: gifts. Of all these he was patron, 
friend, lover. Then he too, though gigantic in his love, was 
yet a confined, individualized, and lovable personality, like 
Othello. One knew him, a friend. But his love, itself infinite, 
has proved itself 'a slave to limit' 1 : generosity was dependent 
on the limits of wealth, his faith in man on the limitations 
of human gratitude. Unwise, no doubt supreme love is 
unwise: an element of judgement would borrow something 
of its rich worth. The poet has shown us a supreme love, 
dissociated from other qualities, and this love, trusting 
finite symbols of itself, has failed disastrously. It now ap 
pears as a naked force, undirected towards any outward 
manifestations, diffused and bodiless, no longer fitted to the 
finite, a thing inhuman, unnatural, and infinite. Timon, 
naked and fierce-eyed, is no longer personal, no longer 
one of mankind. He is pure passion, a naked rhythmic 
force, a rush and whirl of torrential energy loosed from 
any contact or harmony with temporal and confining things, 
a passion which 

. . . like the current flies 
Each bound it chafes. 0- i- *3) 

There is thus less imaginative unity in Timon of Athens i 
rather a strongly marked duality. The latter part of the play 
is contrasted with and related logically to the beginning ; In 
Hamlet we see the tragic superman incongruously set in a 
normal social unit and working chaos therein; in Macbeth 
and King Lear* he is given a world of the same nature as 
himself, a single visionary universe woven in the pattern of 
imagination's truth. Here there is a curious time-sequence, 
The hero is first a resplendent man among men, superhuman, 

'This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution con 
fined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit/ (TroriusandCrtutda,in.u.&s}; 
the typical Shakespearian thought that the infinity cf love is in conflict with actuality, or 
the reflection of actuality in the mind, intellect. Hence the thought, a little further on, 
expressed by Cressida : 

... to be wise and lo\e 

Exceeds man's might," that dwells with gods above. (i 63) 

With which we mijht compare Timott </ A /tan, iv. it. 41 : *. . . bountv, that nuke* gods, 
does still mar men*. Trotlos tries unsuccessful!} to enclose lore's mjtcr\ in his mi ml, 
Timon to embody it in acts. 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 223 

perhaps, but not inhuman : now he becomes inhuman. We 
need not question Timon's Athens: save for Timon himself, 
prince-hearted and lord of love, it is the world we know, first 
sensuous and attractive, then trivial, poor-spirited, dis 
honest. Timon alone, with his shadow Apemantus, is in his 
latter hate of the anti-social and wayward nature of Hamlet 
and Lear. Thus in Timon of Athens we have a logical exposi 
tion of the significance of earlier plays. The hero's passion 
is clearly juxtaposed and related logically to a normal human 
society. The play is in two firmly contrasted parts. During 
the second our universe changes with the change in Timon, 
and after the brilliance of Athens the shadow of an infinite 
gloom broods over the desert solitudes where Timon com 
munes with his hate. Mankind are then dim spectres only, 
and Timon 's passion alone reality. The nature or that passion 
demands further -attention. 

The contrast between the first and second parts is clearly 
a contrast of the sense-world and the finite with the spiritual 
and the infinite. Thus Timon's hate expresses itself in 
aversion from all kinds of moral wholeness and physical 
health that is, with all finite forms. They have been proved 
false coin. Hence he declaims disease, vice, confusion on men : 

Son of sixteen, 

Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire, 
With it beat out his brains ! Piety, and fear, 
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth, 
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood, 
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades, 
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws, 
Decline to your confounding contraries, 
And let confusion live ! Plagues incident to men, 
Your potent and infectious fevers heap 
On Athens, ripe for stroke ! (IT. L 1 3) 

So, too, he repeatedly prays Phrynia and Timandra to spread 
disgusting disease among men, and Alcibiades to paint the 
ground with man's blood (rv. iii). There is no hideous crime 
or ghoulish dishonour or ravaging disease that Timon would 
not imprecate passionately on his race. His former world of 
health and pleasure has been destroyed by one thing: the 
exposure or the rottenness of its love. That love-dream 
killed, his eyes are opened to all forms of human frailty, 



224 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

moral, physical, social. This movement suggests that the 
loss of love alone is responsible for all the ills that flesh 
endures: mankind without love he would wish to disinte 
grate, to rot. Any form of human organism or political or 
social order incites his hate, and he calls down wholesale 
disintegration on mankind. Only by remembering his former 
pleasures taken in finite and sensible symbols of love, can we 
see the unity of his curses: he is violently antagonized by 
human health, bodily or social. No finite thing in humanity 
escapes his hate. Hence his curses against the moral order: 
since morality is a spiritual essence satisfactorily bodied into 
finitude and actuality. The infinity of his passion can now 
tolerate no such cramping or channelling of itself, and all 
-mite forms are anathema. But there is more than negative 
logic in his philosophy. Timon's original force of soul is 
ultimate. First infused into love of man, thence driven, it ex 
presses itself, first ina positiveand passionate aversion from all 
finite forms that is, he must love or hate. Second, we have 
clear signs of the reality toward which this primary energy is 
directing him: the infinite and ineffable to which he is 
bound. There is a swift movement toward infinity. From the 
gold-haze of the mystic dream of a universal love on earth 
have emerged stark contours of base ingratitude: then the 
outward world of man and its shapes swiftly vanishes, and 
the inward world of infinite spirit takes its place, first 
expressing its nature by aversion from the other mode of 
life, then turning towards all that is vast, inhuman, illimitable, 
void. 

The course is direct. There is no tragic conflict, and 
therefore no dramatic tempest-symbolism occurs to heighten 
our imagination of storm and stress: Timon's curses will not 
ring weak. Nor is there any divagation from his inhuman 
quest. Thus in the later scenes we are aware of two modes 
in the utterance of Timon : passionate hate, and a solitary 
contemplation of the infinite, the two interfused or alternate; 
and of three orders of dramatic persons (i) pale ghosts of 
mankind, linking us to the world we have left; (ii) Timon; 
and (iii) a wild ocean, a breadth of nature, the great earth 
and its sun and moon, agents interacting in a cosmic drama 
mightier than man's puppet-play, yet finally dwarfed too 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 22 5 

by the grander soul of Timon, unsatiated in thought by the 
farthest limits of the material universe. I shall therefore note 
shortly, first, the visits of Apemantus and Flavius to Timon, 
and next, the poetic suggestion contrasted strongly with 
the early sensuous and finite appeal of these latter acts: 
the vast symbols, the far-flung imaginations. In these scenes 
the Shakespearian poetry takes on a mighty and compulsive 
rhythm, a throb and pulse unknown in other plays. As Timon 
severs all contact with the finite world and, like some majestic 
liner, cleaves the dark seas of infinity, we voyage too, put off 
from land on the big loom of that leviathan, to leave safe 
coasts and plough forward into the unknown, bosomed on 
the swell and heave of ocean, by the lode-star of a titanic 
love. 

Apemantus comes to Timon, the philospher of hate to the 
prophet of hate. The incident points the difference between 
them, and is important. Apemantus first advises Timon to 
return to mankind, to turn flatterer himself. He points out 
that this life of hardship serves no purpose of revenge, and 
that nature will be no less cruel than men. Will the bleak 
air, the trees, the creatures hardened in nature's battle with 
a cruel heaven, come to Timon 's bidding, and flatter? 
Timon, however, angrily bids him depart. Apemantus shows 
signs of desiring friendship: 

Apemantus. I love thee better now than e'er I did. 

Timon. I hate thee worse. 

Apemantus. Why ? 

Timon. Thou flatter'st misery. (iv. iii. 234) 

Which turns a shaft of light inward on Apemantus* mean 
ness. Timon reveals him to himself as a flatterer like the 
rest: a man to whom loathing is an enjoyment, not a terrible 
destiny; who comes to receive the bounty of Timon's hate 
as others to receive of his wealth; who was now hoping to 
join Timon in a dilettante festival of cynicism. Hence 
Apemantus is lashed into anger and spite then, recovering 
himself, he defends his philosophy as compared with Timon's 
passion. He points out that to adopt the hard life which 
Timon has embraced from a considered philosophy would 
be well enough, but that Timon does it 'enforcedly*. His 
own, however, is a 'willing misery ', which 'outlives incertain 



226 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

pomp' (iv. Hi. 243), and is thus the highest good, since 
contented poverty is richer than the wealthiest discontent. 
If Timon's misery is unwilling, there is nothing for him but 
death. Thus Apemantus states the case with admirable logic. 
Timon answers that Apemantus* philosophy is born of the 
marriage of poverty and a mean spirit. Had he been favour 
ably placed by fortune, he would have lived luxuriously and 
in v i ce have 'melted down* his youth with lust: but, 
having been 'bred a dog', he has evolved a philosophy out 
of envy. Apemantus has no cause to hate, since he has not 
been flattered and deceived. But with Timon, once the 
centre of man's supposed love, it is different: 

But myself, 

Who had the world as my confectionary, 
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes and hearts of men 
At duty, more than I could frame employment, 
That numberless upon me stuck as leaves 
Do on the oak, have with one winter's brush 
Fell from their boughs and left me open, bare 
For every storm that blows. (iv. iii. 260) 

If Apemantus had not been born 'the worst of men*, he too 
would have been knave and flatterer. Timon, too, speaks 
truth, Apemantus and Timon hate with a difference: one, 
because he is less than mankind the other because he 
is greater. Hence Timon is particularly disgusted with 
Apemantus, who apes, and enjoys, the bitter passion of 
his own enduring soul. 

This dialogue is most important for our understanding 
of the essential meaning of the play. The two hates are 
juxtaposed. Apemantus upholds the worth of his as a thing 
of judgement, systematized into a way of life. To Timon that 
is abhorrent, and witnesses a gross nature. Now Apemantus 
is right when he tells Timon that death is the only hope 
left for him. Apemantus has scorned humanity, but lives 
on with them, feeding his scorn; he continues 'vexing' 
men, which is, says Timon, 'a villain's office or a fool's' 
(iv* iii* 238); and he enjoys doing it, which proves him a 
'knave' (iv. iii. 239). Apemantus has hated life, yet loves to 
live. But for Timon, who has uncompromisingly broken 
from mankind, and whose sweeping condemnation includes 



AN ESSAY ON TIMO.\ OF ATIIEKS 227 

not only humanity and the beasts of nature (iv. iii. 329) but 
even sun and moon (iv. iii. 442) : for Timon there is, as Ape- 
man tus points out, only death, Apemantus confesses that 
the universal destruction he would like to see he would yet 
postpone till after he himself is dead (iv. iii. 396); and 
Timon's iinal curse on Apemantus is to fling back on him 
his own command to Timon: 'Live and love thy misery' 
(iv. iii. 398); that is, continue to be Apemantus than 
which there is no bitterer imprecation. From these considera 
tions the difficulties of this dialogue will be made clear. 
Timon 's especial loathing and Apemantus' vulgar rage are 
both inevitable. Apemantus sees himself in his meanness, as 
a creature less than those he has loved to despise. But Timon 
is weary of curses. He turns away and speaks to himself: 

I am sick of this false world, and will love nought 

But even the mere necessities upon't. 

Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave; 

Lie where the Hght foam of the sea may beat 

Thy grave-stone daily. (iv. iii. 378) 

In the other visit to be noticed, Timon's hate is pitted 
against something of a very different kind. Flavius, Timon 's 
steward, comes to remind us of the reality of faithfulness and 
love. Yet even here Timon loses no jot of grandeur. At first 
he refuses to see, then to recognize, his faithful servant. 
Finally, he is forced to realize that in simple love his steward 
is again offering his service to the ruin of his old master: 

Had I a steward 

So true, so just, and now so comfortable? 
It almost turns my dangerous nature mild. 
Let me behold thy face. Surely, this man 
Was born of woman. 

Forgive my general and exceptless rashness, 
You perpetual-sober gods ! I do proclaim 
One honest man mistake me not but one; 
No more, I pray and he's a steward. 
How fain would I have hated all mankind 1 
And thott redeem'st thyself: but all, lave thee, 
I fell with curses. (i*. in. 499) 

The beauty of this incident is the beauty of a blade of grass 
beneath the architrave of a cathedral. The finite virtue of 
simple humanity is asserting its right to stand within the 



228 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

vaulted silences of the eternal which scorns all limit, all 
failure. Timon stays for a moment his onward passionate 
adventure, pauses to proclaim one honest man : though the 
edifice of his creed or hate be a mighty thing, the blade of 
grass, rooted in the strength of a mightier, splits one stone 
of the foundation. But Timon, with an afterthought, suspects 
Flavius of mean motives. Reassured, he shows him his gold, 
and gives him wealth with the terrible injunction that he, 
too, is to hate mankind: 

Look thee, 'tis so ! Thou singly honest man, 

Here, take : the gods out of my misery 

Have sent thee treasure. Go, live rich and happy ; 

But thus condition'd : thou shah build from men ; 

Hate all, curse all, show charity to none, 

But let the famish'd flesh slide from the bone, 

Ere thou relieve the beggar; give to dogs 

What thou deny'st to men ; let prisons swallow 'em, 

Debts wither 'em to nothing; be men like blasted woods, 

And may diseases lick up their false bloods ! 

And so farewell and thrive. (iv. iii. 532) 

Timon is again left alone in his solitary pride of soul. He 
lives in a cave *near the sea-shore*. He is now a naked son of 
earth, and speaks to the Bandits a solemn knowledge of 
nature's kinship with man's wants : 

Why should you want ? Behold, the earth hath roots; 
Within this mile break forth a hundred springs; 
The oaks bear mast, the briers scarlet hips; 
The bounteous housewife, nature, on each bush 
Lays her full mess before you. Want! Why want? 

(iv. iii, 423) 

He, who aspires only to the infinite, chafes at the limitations 
of the physical, and yet again finds solace- in thought of the 
earth's vastness, in one of those grand undertones of harmony 
that characterize the tremendous orchestration of this play: 

That nature, being sick of man's unkindness 
Should yet be hungry ! Common mother, thou 
Whose womb immeasurable and infinite breast 
Teems, and feeds all; whose self-same mettle, 
Whereof thy proud child, arrogant man, is pufFd, 
Engenders the black toad and adder blue, 
The gilded newt and eyeless venom'd worm, 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OP ATHENS 22$ 

With all the abhorred births below crisp heaven 
Whereon Hyperion's quickening fire doth shine; 
Yield him, who all thy human sons doth hate, 
From forth thy plenteous bosom, one poor root ! 

<iv. iii. 177) 

His thoughts are already set beyond the world of man, in 
the silence of eternity: yet he is not himself beyond the 
world of nature, he is, incongruously, hungry. As in this 
speech, Timon's utterance is often addressed with a deep 
recognition and intimacy toward the vast forces, the stillness, 
the immensities of nature, clear springs which the intellect 
of man has muddied. These are innocent, they wake 
responses in him. He addresses sun and earth as his co- 
equals, peers of his unsatiated and universal soul : 

O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth 

Rotten humidity ; below thy sister's orb 

Infect the air ! (nr. iii. i) 

c Thou sun, that comfort'st, burn!' he cries (v. i. 136); and, 
at the end, *Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his 
reign* (v. i. 228). 

We are nevertheless reminded that these vast forces arc 
yet not friends of Timon: not with them will he find 
any but a temporary purge and solace to his pain. Says 
Apemantus : 

What, think'st 

That the bleak air, thy boisterous chamberlain, 

Will put thy shirt on warm ? will these moss'd trees, 

That have outlived the eagle, page thy heels, 

And skip where thou point'st out ? will the cold brook, 

Candied with ice, caudle thy morning taste, 

To cure thy o'er-night's surfeit? Call the creatures 

Whose naked natures live hi all the spite 

Of wreakful heaven, whose bare unhoused trunks, 

To the conflicting elements exposed, 

Answer mere nature; bid them flatter thee ... (rr. iii. 222) 

Timon also expresses the thought that the animal-kingdom 
is no better than man's civilization as ruthless as human 
nature, as devouring and crueL He catalogues the beasts in 
the speech commencing: 

. . . If thou wert the lion, the for would beguile thee: if thpa wert the 
lamb, the fox would eat thee ... (r*. i. 33) 



2JO THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

He knows that sun and moon and sea and earth live, like 
men, by perpetual interaction, thieving, and absorption; that 
if he attributes personality to nature, his curses must be 
levelled against earth and sky, his indictment must include 
the whole cosmic mechanism : 

Ahibiadfs. How came the noble Timon to this change ? 
Timon. As the moon does, by wanting light to give : 

But then renew I could not, like the moon ; 

There were no suns to borrow of. (iv. iii. 66) 

Or again, 

The sun *s a thief, and with his great attraction 

Robs the vast sea ; the moon 's an arrant thief, 

And her pale fire she snatches from the sun ; 

The sea 's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves 

The moon into salt tears ; the earth 's a thief, 

That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen 

From general excrement. (iv. iii. 442) 

This sweep of the fanciful imagination is profound: it 
involves the knowledge that the meanest of man 's vices owes 
its viciousness to man's moral ascension. Timon cannot 
impose the laws of his generous soul on the unthinking 
mechanism of the universal scheme. Not on the breast of 
nature, nor in contemplation of the solar fire mated to earth 
or sea, can he find that to which he moves. He ranges the 
planetary spaces of the night and finds no home: nowhere 
but within the spaceless silence of the deeper night of death 
will he be at peace. He is thus retrogressing swiftly through 
the modes of being. They are, in order: chaos, or the primal 
night; the stellar, mundane, natural and human worlds; 
culminating in man's civilization. Here, starting in the first 
scene with the four symbolic figures of civilization, we fall 
back swiftly on nature, earth, sun and the ultimate void of 
that infinity, undisciplined to form, whose only symbol can 
be some suggestion of formlessness, immensity, chaos; 
whose favourite symbol in Shakespeare is always the sea. 
Timon knows the end to which he aspires. It is so clear so 
implicit in the whole allegorical movement that no cause 
of death is given or needed : 

Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave ; 

Lie where the light foam of the sea may beat 

Thy grave-stone daily. (iv. iii. 380) 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 

And: 

Come not to me again : but say to Athens, 

Timon hath made his everlasting mansion 

Upon the beached verge of the salt flood ; 

Who once a day with his embossed froth 

The turbulent surge shall cover : thither come, 

And let my grave-stone be your oracle. (v. i. 219) 

The void of death, darkness; the Shakespearian 'nothing' 
which brings Timon *all things 7 (v. i. 193). The dark sea 
which is infinite formlessness, infinite depth, the surge and 
swell within the soul of man, the deeps beyond intellect, or 
sight, or sound. It is this surge that has throbbed within the 
poetry of tremendous symbols, this tide of emotion that 
breaks and sobs in Timon 's passion when, his active hate 
subdued, he speaks the language of a soul beyond the world 
of manifestation and tuned to its own solitary music; the 
psalmody of earth and sun and the wide sea of eternal dark 
ness beating on the rocks of creation. 

We are given no chance to sentimentalize Timon 's hate. 
Its nobility derives solely from its utter reversal of love. It 
is thus not a spiritual atrophy, a negation, a cold vacuum of 
the soul, like the pain of Hamlet, but a dynamic and positive 
thing, possessing purpose and direction. Therefore, though 
impelled to its inevitable death-climax, the tragic movement 
of this play leaves us with no sense of the termination of the 
essential Timon : its impact on the imagination is rather that 
of a continuation, circling within and beyond the mysterious 
nothing of dissolution, in a new dimension congruous with 
the power and the passion which have forced him toward 
death. The especial reality of Timon is this of powerful, 
torrential movement to freedom: which freedom from all 
that we call life* is so necessary and excellent a consumma 
tion to the power and the direction of Timon's passion, 
that it can in no sense be imagined as a barrier or stoppage. 
It is rather as though the rushing torrent, so long chafed 
by the limits of its channel, breaks out into the wide 
smoothness of the living sea. The death-theme in Timon of 
Athens is thus of the greatest importance, the crowning 
majesty of the play's movement. Timon speaks to the 
Senators : 



232 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

Why, I was writing of my epitaph; 
It will be seen to-morrow : my long sickness 
Of health and living now begins to mend, 
And nothing brings me all things. (v. i. 190) 

The nothingness of death becomes 'all things' to Timon 
who passionately desires that 'nothing'. No conceivable 
symbol of desire will now serve that love, therefore in 
desiring death it desires nothing but its own unsatiable love: 
there it will, as it were, turn back within its own richness. 
Timon, embracing this ineffable darkness with joy, is already 
outside himself, viewing his own tragedy, as we do, with 
objective delight. He thus looks toward death, and imagines 
his end, and sees it, as we do, to be good to hold the gift 
of 'all things'. Consciousness that thus derives joy from the 
death of consciousness is already, as we who watch, outside 
the dying and the death. It is but another aspect of the living 
force of Timon, the vivid, dynamic, swift thing of passion 
which is in him: the heat of it unsatiated by the mode called 
'life* has been excruciating, an expanding, explosive essence 
prisoned, and in death it will burn the enhampering body 
to fling backward its invisible brilliance in the illumination 
of 'all things*. 'Health and living' have been to Timon as_a 
'long sickness*. In so far as we have been aware of this 
reversal of significance during the action, we shall know that 
we have long walked with Timon in death. Life and death 
have interchanged their meaning for him, and he now 
utters that paradox which is at the heart of all tragedy. 

Therefore the grand death-speeches at the close come not 
as a super-added adornment, a palliative, but rather as a 
necessary and expected continuation, consummation, satis 
faction. They are not to be analysed as solitary units of 
philosophic utterance, but as living thought precipitated by 
the momentum of the tragic theme as a whole, gaining their 
impact from the force that has driven Timon from ease and 
luxury to nakedness among the naked beasts and trees and 
planets of the night, and beyond these to the unbodied and 
immortal nakedness of death. We have watched a swift 
unwrapping of fold on fold of life's significances civilized 
man, beasts, the earth, the objective universe itself, till we 
reach the core of pure and naked significance, undistorted 



AM ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 233 

by any symbol, in the nothingness of death. Yet at every 
step in Timon's history we have been aware, not of a 
lessening, but of an increase of his grandeur; that is, at every 
stripping of the soul of Timon we have known that what was 
taken is but another rag, what remains, the essence, the 
reality. For Timon, at the end, is pure essence of significance, 
beyond the temporal, in touch with a conquering knowledge 
of his furthest destiny. Nothing will be proved the largesse 
of all things. So he cries: 

Graves only be men's works and death their gain ! 

Sun, hide thy beams ! Timon hath done his reign. (Y. i. 227) 

Again is emphasized the completeness with which Timon's 
love is reversed. It is not alone a turning away from man 
kind: rather a passionate turning inward from all forms and 
shapes of actuality, all manifestation, from the cosmic 
scheme. He would wish the race to die out, the sun blackened, 
the glass of time exhausted. Only the rhythm of the tireless 
beat of waves, the crash and the whispering retraction, these 
alone signify some fore-echoing of the thing which is to 
receive Timon. This is only the last step, into the cold night 
of death, of the movement we have been watching all along. 
It is truly spoken that 

Timon is dead, who hath outstretch'd hi span. (T. m, 3) 

His hate of man was ever but one aspect, or expression, of 
the turning inward of his soul toward death, and since he 
flung back titanic curse on Athens, his being has been 
centred not in time but throughout the otherness of eternity. 
Yet there is one symbol that persists throughout both 
parts of the play and this has important meaning: gold. 
Gold-symbolism is throughout recurrent, and the thought of 
gold and riches is woven close within the texture of thought 
and emotion. Timon's nature is essentially a thing of rich 
ness. Mankind is amazed, from the start, at the richness of 
his personality and the generosity and wealth in which it 
manifests itself. Instances of this are frequent: I have quoted 
some. Men are 'rich in Timon's nod* (i. i. 63); 'Plutus, the 
god of gold, is but his steward* (i. i. 288). Throughout the 
play richness of heart and actual gold are associated or con- 



234 THE PILGRIMAGE Of HATE: 

trasted. A jewel is made more valuable by Timon's wearing 
it (i. i. 173). In wasting Timon 's riches, his flatterers 'dip 
their meat' in his 'blood 1 (i. ii. 42). At the pivotal moment 
of the play (m. iv.), Timon cries, 'Tell out my blood P They 
'cut* his heart 'in sums'. 'Five thousand drops' of his heart's 
blood will pay his debt of five thousand crowns. The contrast 
is ever between gold and the heart's blood of passionate love 
of which it is a sacrament: the association, of the metaphoric 
value of gold and the value of love; or conversely, of hardness 
and the callousness of ingratitude mankind is *flinty', of an 
'iron heart', to Timon, since these are metals possessing 
hardness without value. His flatterers prove 'base metal'. 
So, too, the 'hearts' of Timon's servants yet wear his 'livery* 
(iv, ii. 17), though payment and outward shows are at an 
end; and Flavius, 'whilst he has gold', will serve Timon's 
*mind* (iv. ii. 50). These ideas are deeply embedded through 
out. Now the gold-symbolism continued into the last two 
acts serves a double purpose. First, it remains to Timon a 
symbol of mankind's greed : 

Earth, yield me roots ! 

Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate 

With thy most operant poison ! What is here? 

Gold ? yeDow, glittering, precious gold ? No, gods, 

I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens ! 

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, 

Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant. 

Ha, you gods ! why this? what this, you gods ? Why, this 

Will lug your priests and servants from your sides, 

Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads : 

This yellow slave 

Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed, 

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves 

And give them tide, knee and approbation 

With senators on the bench . . . (iv. iii. 23) 

Second, it draws men to him as of old, and suggests the 
continued richness and nobility of his nature, the native 
aristocracy of his heart. Even in hate he reacts on man for 
good, not ill. The Bandit speaks: 

He has almost charmed me from my profession, by persuading me 
to it. (iv. iii. 457} 

He is still a prince among men, the desired of men, a fate he 
cannot escape. The 'yellow, glittering, precious gold* which 



AN ESSAY ON TIAfOS OF ATHENS 1$$ 

he finds endues him still with superiority and power and 
enables him to aid the army levied against Athens, thus 
constituting an important link between the hate of Timon 
and the avenging ardour of Alcibiades. 

Timon, in love or hate, bears truly a heart of gold. He is 
a thing apart, a choice soul crucified. He has a mind 'un 
matched* (iv. iii. 5*25). He is one 

Whose star-like nobleness gave life and influence (v. i. 68) 

to the world that has driven him without its walls. Sun-like 
he used to *shine' on men (m. iv. 10). The issues for which 
a Timon contends are the issues not of Athens but of 
humanity. He is a principle of the human soul, a possibility, 
a symbol of mankind's aspiration. His servants know that 
his loss is as the loss of a golden age. A bright spirit has 
been on earth, spirit of infinite and rich love and bounty, and 
its wings have been soiled by mortality. Timon, who 'flashed 
a phoenix', is left a 'naked gull' (n. i. 31). The elected of the 
heavens has been scorned of man. So the poetry of this play 
is large and deep, immeasurably grand, and pregnant of 
human fate. When Timon lifts his voice to Heaven pro 
claiming 'one honest man* (iv. iii. 506), his words hold an 
echo no less universal than Abraham's prayer to Jehovah to 
spare the iniquitous city, if ten just men be found therein; 
when Timon 's servants part to wander abroad separated, 
they are as disciples of the Christ meeting after the cruci 
fixion. 1 Of these thoughts the poetry is indeed most worthy. 
It is loaded with a massive, compulsive emotion, in com 
parison with which the words of Hamlet, Troilus, Othello, 
and even Lear, are as the plaintive accents of children. A 
mighty rhythm of a race's longing, of human destiny un 
alterable and uncomplained, sounds through the whole play, 
and wakes an unearthly majesty of words in the symphonic 
harmonies of the final acts. There is no turning aside, no 

The analogy is obvious and suggested by other passages. We ha: 
There's much example for 't; the fellow that aits next him now, parts bread with him, 
pledges the breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest man to kilt him: 't has 
been proved. ( 4*) 

and Who can call him 

His friend that dips in the saine dish? (i. . 73) 

Another New Testament reference occur* at iv. iii. 475-6. 



236 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

regret in all the passion of Timon, but it 

flies an eagle flight, bold and forth on, 
Leaving no tract behind (i- i. 5) 

until, in the poetry of the latter half of the play, the mind 
is a-voyage on unfathomed and uncharted seas, whose solid 
deeps of passion but wanly and waveringly reflect the vastest 
images that man can dream. In this recurrent solemnity of 
utterance more grand for its massive and fathomless sim 
plicity, we joy in that we listen not to the accents of mortality 
but to those of the spirit of a race. Therefore, though Flavius 
saves mankind from utter condemnation by one act of faith, 
we know that the organ notes of implacable hatred cannot 
so be stilled, since by them alone the soul of Timon pursues 
its course. He is no 'idle votarist' (iv. iii. 27): 

Hate all, curse all, show charity to none. (iv. iii. 534) 

The profoundest problems of racial destiny are here sym 
bolized and fought out. In no other play is a more force 
ful, a more irresistible, mastery of technique almost crude 
in its massive, architectural effects employed. But then no 
play is so massive, so rough-hewn into Atlantean shapes 
from the mountain rock of the poet's mind or soul, as this 
of Timon. 'I have in this rough work shap'd out a man . . .' 
It is true. No technical scaffolding in Shakespeare has to 
stand so weighty and shattering a stress. For this play is 
Hamkt) Trot/us and Cressida, Qthello> King Lear> become 
self-conscious and universal ; it includes and transcends them 
all; it is the recurrent and tormenting hate-theme of Shake 
speare, developed, raised to an infinite power, presented in 
all its tyrannic strength and profundity, and killed. Three 
acts form the prologue. Our vision thus with infinite care and 
every possible device focused, we await the onrush of a 
passion which sums in its torrential energy all the lesser 
passions of those protagonists foregone. Timon is the 
totality of all, his love more rich and oceanic than all of theirs, 
all lift their lonely voices in his universal curse. Christ- 
like, he suffers that their pain may cease, and leaves the 
Shakespearian universe redeemed that Cleopatra may win 
her Antony in death, and Thaisa be restored to Pericles. 
The individual soul has been scorned by the community. 



AN ESSAY ON TIMON OF ATHENS 2J7 

But the fault is not venial to the heavenly justice. Alcibiades, 
too, has been banished. A man of blood and war (i. ii. 79-83), 
strong-handed, with an army at his command, he comes on 
Athens, accusing. He is youth and strength armed against 
old age, dotage, greed. This is clearly pointed in many 
passages (in. v. 95-116; v. iii. 8; v. iv. 13). He is the new 
generation coming on the old, effacing a worn-out and effete 
civilization, bringing retribution for its crimes, restoring 
harmony and health : 

Sound to this coward and lascivious town 
Our terrible approach. 

Enter Senators on tke walls. 
Till now you have gone on and filPd the time 
With all licentious measure, making your wills 
The scope of justice ; till now myself and such 
As slept within the shadow of your power 
Have wander'd with our traversed arms and breathed 
Our sufferance vainly : now the time is flush, 
When crouching marrow in the bearer strong 
Cries of itself 'No more' : now breathless wrong 
Shall sit and pant in your great chairs of ease, 
And pursy insolence shall break his wind 
With fear and horrid flight. (v. r*. i) 

The crime of Athens is this : they have preferred the gold of 
coins to the gold of love. They have slaughtered love: Timon 
is dead. Him, who was civilization's perfected flower, their 
civilization has ruthlessly skin. Too late, the terror-struck 
Senators sent legates to the naked Timon of the woods, 
imploring forgiveness and aid. They 'entreat him back to 
Athens' (v. i. 146). Let him come back and forgive and all 
will be well. For he is a soul greater than the warrior 
Alcibiades, and can match a nobler strength and a more 
beautiful, against the enemies of Athens. Once before his 
'sword and fortune* (iv. iii. 95) saved ingrateful Athens 
from her foes, but now Alcibiades' purpose is 'in part for his 
sake moved' (v. ii. 13): they know that he is the symbol of 
their sin, that he alone has called down divine wrath on their 
city. The rich gold of Timon's heart has equipped and 
paid Alcibiades' soldiers, Timon's curse has breathed 
immortal fire into his army, and set Heaven's lightning on 
his sword; 



238 THE PILGRIMAGE OF HATE: 

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove 

Will o'er some high-viced city hang his poison 

In the sick air. (iv. iii. 109) 

Alcibiades fights invulnerable in the immortal armour of 
a Timon's curse; and when the Senate know Timon to be 
dead, they cast themselves on Alcibiades* mercy: 

First Senator. Noble and young, 

When thy first griefs were but a mere conceit, 

Ere thou hadst power or we had cause of fear, 

We sent to thee, to give thy rages balm, 

To \\ipe out our ingratitude with loves 

Above their quantity. 
Second Senator. So did we woo 

Transformed Timon to our city's love 

By humble message and by promised means: 

We were not all unkind, nor all deserve 

The common stroke of war. (v. iv. 1 3) 

They claim that those who committed these wrongs are 
dead; that Athens, its buildings, customs, institutions, long 
planted in past centuries, ought not to suffer for one 
iniquitous generation. Time is old since Alcibiades and 
Timon left Athens. 

, Alcibiades grants their prayer, moves down to them. He 
assumes dictatorship as Heaven's minister on earth, to right 
the balance of a civilization grown effete in idle prosperity. 
We are brought to the knowledge that humanity progresses 
by conflict alone, and that too much prosperity, though it 
make one Timon, yet kills a state. Alcibiades is the stern 
and merciful bearer of the heavenly command, who alone, 
at this moment, has the sovereign right to speak of Timon 's 
faults. A soldier shows him Timon 's epitaph: 

Alcibla4es. These well express in thee thy latter spirits : 
Though thou abhorr'dst in us our human griefs, 
Scorn'dst our brain's flow and those our droplets which 
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit 
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye 
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead 
Is noble Timon : of whose memory 
Hereafter more. (v. iv. 74) 

An infinite, undying grief, for that lost infinity of love. But 
Timon has refused the limitations of man. He has hungered 



AN ESSAY OK TIMO.\ OF ATHEXS 239 

for infinity and scorned all that is partial, ephemeral, limited 
in space, time, or any ethical code. These, his faults, are 
passed. Though throughout the play we have been forced 
to centre all our sympathies on Timon, at this last moment, 
when, as is customary in Shakespeare, the individual tragedy 
is thrown into relation with the ebb and flow of generation 
on generation, and human time rolls on, we see the two 
parts of this play, the shapes of the finite and the phantoms 
of the infinite, as complementary aspects of the eternal and 
ever-present interaction in which are both man and God. 
Therefore Alcibiades knows that Timon's quenchless thirst 
of absolute love on earth is a 'fault', that neither man, nor 
his civilization, nor perhaps his God, are creatures alone of 
good or of evil, but find their being in the constant interplay 
of both, the dissolution and the rebuilding, war and peace, 
the rebirth of the new from broken shards of the old : 

Bring me into your city, 
And I will use the olive with my sword, 
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each 
Prescribe to other as each other's leech. 
Let our drums strike. (v. iv. 8 1 ) 

The earthly paradise is a delusion, and Timon's kingdom, if 
indeed it be existent, is not of this world. 

ADDITIONAL NOTE (1947-8) 

Since writing this I have produced and acted in Timtn f Atke*^ and plan 
to do so again (December, 1948) ; and have abo developed ray general reading 
of it for other purposes. Such experiences, including in particular the visuali 
zation of its two parts in terms of Nietzsche*s Apollonian and Dionysian prin 
ciples, together with a comparison of Timon with both Byron's Sardanapalus 
and Nietzsche's *superman', have increased my respect for this central work. 
I do not, of course, deny certain roughnesses due probably as my original 
note on p. 214 suggests to lack of revision : and for a careful discussion of 
this particular problem, see Prof. Una EIlis-Fermor's article in the Review *f 
English Studies, July 1942 ; also Prof. Peter Alexander's SA*kspf*rr: fa Life 
and Art (1938). 

Timon is always well afax his own curses. HU attitude to Akibiades 
warring is ironic (IT. iii. 105; v. i. 179, 194) and his most violent accents 
charged internally with the love and pity which he scorns (a* at;v. iii. 1 1 2-27 ; 
536-8; v. i. 176-8). His force is the more frightening for being the scorn 
(v iv 75-7) of a superhuman virtue. For a further diicutsion, see my CArist 
ad Nietzsche (Staples Press, 1948) ad Privates rf Sk*kesj**n*x Prrime- 
fitts, 2nd edn. (Pelican Books, 1949)- 



"Si 



XI 

SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 

IN this essay I attempt to show how a comparison with 
Tolstoy, who, with Goethe, is of all modern writers *nost 
nearly comparable with Shakespeare, reveals a striking 
similarity of spiritual experience. I shall draw upon The 
Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green & Co., 
;; originally 1902) for my facts concerning Tolstoy. 
William James writes : 

In Tolstoy's case the sense that life had any meaning whatever was for 
a time wholly withdrawn. The result was a transformation in the whole 
expression of reality. When we come to study the phenomenon of con 
version or religious regeneration, we shall see that a not infrequent con 
sequence of the change operated in the subject is a transfiguration of the 
face of nature in his eyes. A new heaven seems to shine upon a new earth. 
In mekncholiacs there is usually a similar change, only it is in the reverse 
direction. The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny. Its 
colour is gone, its breath is cold, there is no speculation in the eyes it 
glares with. (p. 151 .} 

A quotation from Hamlet would really be more apposite here 
than this from Macbeth. This passage, and others from the 
chapter entitled *The Sick Soul', inevitably recall Hamlet's : 

I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth, fore 
gone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my dis 
position that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promon- 
' tory ; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging 
firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears 
no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. 

(ii. ii. 313) 

Hamlet inaugurates the period of pained thought in the 
sequence of Shakespeare's plays. It is an embodiment, in 
terms of drama, of exactly that state which William James 
calls 'The Sick SouF. Now Sir Sidney Lee in his Life of 
William Shakespeare has an interesting passage with reference 
to the cause of the shadow that overcasts Shakespeare's work 
at this period: 

A popular theory presumes that Shakespeare's decade of tragedy was 
the outcome of some spiritual calamity, of some episode of tragic gloom 
ra his private life. No tangible evidence supports the allegation. The 

240 



SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 24! 

external facts of Shakespeare's biography through the main epoch of his 
tragic energy show an unbroken progress of prosperity, a final farewell 
to pecuniary anxieties, and the general recognition of hit towering genius 
by contemporary opinion. The biographic record lends no support to the 
suggestion of a prolonged personal experience of tragic suffering. Nor 
does the general trend of his literary activities countenance the nebulous 
theory. Tragedy was no new venture for Shakespeare when the seven 
teenth century opened . . . ultimately tragedy rather than comedy gave 
him the requisite scope for the full exercise of his matured endowments, 
by virtue of the inevitable laws governing the development of dramatic 
genius. To seek in the necessarily narrow range of his personal experience 
the key to Shakespeare's triumphant conquest of the topmost peak* of 
tragedy is to underrate his creative faculty and to disparage the force of 
its magic. (A Life of William Shakespeare^ xix, p. 41 7) 

That is the view of orthodox Shakespeare commentary, I 
feel that many modern commentators would subscribe to it, 
unreservedly. But the issue is by no means clear, as usually 
stated. The argument appears to presuppose a necessary 
causality linking spiritual experience to external conditions, 
a relation which may well not exist, and is certainly often not 
apparent. 'The external facts', 'the biographic record', are 
offered to disprove the possibility of 'some spiritual calamity*, 
or *a prolonged period of tragic suffering 1 : which is mani 
festly a misuse of biographical facts, and rests on an inade 
quate valuation of the mysterious workings of the soul. Now, 
even though it could be proved that Shakespeare was not 
suffering from a conscious melancholy during the writing of 
H&mlet^ that he was not in a state of conscious mystic vision 
when he wrote The Tempest, the significance of the series 
bounded by these plays would in no sense be impaired. They 
might reflect a previous rhythm of spiritual experience rising 
from the 'unconscious mind'; or they might be divinely 
inspired. We do not fully understand the nature of what Sir 
Sidney Lee here names 'the creative faculty*; we cannot say 
whence arises 'the force of its magic'. One cannot safely 
dogmatize about the causality of spiritual experience or 
artistic composition. It is, however, interesting to compare 
Tolstoy's account of his extreme pain, its circumstances, 
its symptoms: wherein we shall be reminded of both the 
Problem Plays of Shakespeare and Sir Sidney Lee's references 
to Shakespeare's worldly prosperity at the time when they 
were being written. 



242 SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 

Tolstoy, like the Shakespeare of 1 600, was not a young 
and inexperienced man when sickness entered his soul. He, 
too, had already written tragic literature during happier 
days. He, too, was prosperous. This is his account: 

... All this took place at a time when so far as all my outer circumstances 
went, I ought to have been completely happy. I had a good wife who 
loved me and whom I loved ; good children and a krge property which 
was increasing with no pains taken on my part. I was more respected by 
my kinsfolk and acquaintances than I had ever been ; I was loaded with 
praise by strangers ; and without exaggeration I could believe my name 
already famous. Moreover, I was neither insane nor ill. On the contrary, 
I possessed a physical and mental strength which I have rarely met in 
persons of my age. I could mow as well as the peasants, I could work with 
my brain eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects. 

And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any actions of my life. 
And I was surprised that I had not understood this from the beginning. 
My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played 
upon me by some one. One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, 
drunk with life ; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it 
is all a stupid cheat. What is truest about it is that there is nothing even 
i funny or silly in it ; it is cruel and stupid, purely and simply. 

(P- 153) 

Those last words express admirably the quality of that 
insistent pain and disgust that rings through certain passages 
of Shakespeare. This is not a strained comparison : Tolstoy's 
words form an exactly appropriate comment on these plays. 
We think of Hamlet's bitterness to Ophelia, of Thersites, 
Apemantus. It will be clear, too, that Shakespeare's material 
success can in no sense be adduced to disprove the personal 
nature of the pain in Hamlet: Tolstoy's words about his 
reasons for happiness might have been spoken by the Shake 
speare Sir Sidney Lee gives us. Reasons have little to do 
with spiritual harmony and peace of mind. 

According to my interpretation of the Shakespeare Pro 
gress, the pain expressed in Hamlet is subjected to a careful 
and penetrating examination in the next plays, Trot/us and 
Cressida and Measure for Measure. Each is pregnant with 
intellectual vitality: Troths and Cressida is rich in meta 
physical analysis beyond any previous play of Shakespeare, 
and Measure for Measure reveals a studied commentary on 
man'smoral nature reaching both back to the teachingof Jesus 
and forward to the most modern of psychological theories. 



SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 243 

These two plays witness a depth of thought, a striving, and 
a determination which make the following parallel from 
Tolstoy s experience of particular value to the interpreter of 
Shakespeare: r 

'But perhaps', I often said to myself, 'there may be something I have 
failed to notice or comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of 

ff k u "r? t0 mankincL ' And l ^gh* for an explanation 
m all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully 
and Protractedly and with no idle curiosity. I 5ought, not with iiSolence, 
but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together. I sought 
hke a man who is lost and seeks to save himself and I found nothing. 
1 became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought 
for an answer m the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, 
but that they have recognized that the very thing which was leading me 
to despair the meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable 
knowledge accessible to man. (? 1 5 5) 

So Macbeth cries: 

... it is a tale 

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. ( v> v 2 Q 

I do not suggest by this quotation that Shakespeare or his 
poetic genius was in any sort of spiritual pain during the 
writing of Macbeth : if ever man was in an ecstasy of divine 
joy it was the Shakespeare of the great tragedies, which are 
in the nature of answers to Hanilet. The tragedies include 
and master the tortured thought of Hamlet\ since their per 
fected form, their power of passion, their death-mysticism, 
throw the thought-content into relation with infinite vistas 
of significance. This quotation says what Hamlet in parts 
makes us feel; also, what Macbeth feeis. But the reader to 
whom those lines are true absolutely, and not merely 
relatively to their contex^ is not receiving the message of 
supreme poetic tragedy, 

William James writes of the phenomenon of Tolstoy's 
'absolute disenchantment with ordinary life, and the fact that 
the whole range of habitual values may, to a man as powerful 
and full of faculty as he was, come to appear so ghastly a 
mockery' (p. 156). So also to a man of Shakespeare's mental 
and spiritual stature, we may well, in face of his written work, 
believe that the pain if there were a corresponding con 
scious pain was tremendous: the nausea of Hanilet, the 



244 SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 

railing of Thersites, the volcanic curses of Timon, would 
surely tell their own story. The hate-theme, as I have else 
where named it, is of supreme importance for our under 
standing of Shakespeare. In exact proportion ^to the erotic 
perception of poetry, just as Timon 's disillusioned hate is 
the measure or his original love, it came near to shattering 
Shakespeare's dramatic technique in Hamlet^ and is a thing 
of torment and unrest until it is mastered by the cleansing 
power of tragedy, and finally interpreted in the allegory of 
Timon of Athens. 

'It must be confessed', says William James, 'that it is 
hard to follow these windings of the hearts of others, and 
one feels that their words do not reveal their total secret/ 
But it is exactly on this point that I would claim that the 
work of a great poet, when it reveals a rhythm of spiritual 
development across a span of years, is of extreme interest and 
value, not alone to the man of letters, but to the meta 
physician and the theologian : for the poetic faculty is exactly 
this the power to express with clarity the darkest and 
deepest truths of the mind or soul. In proportion as we admit 
Shakespeare to be a great poet, we must admit his works to 
be a revelation, not of fancy, but of truth. I shall now attempt 
a brief statement of Shakespeare's progress from intellectual 
search to the emotional significance of tragedy, as related to 
the corresponding movement of Tolstoy's mind or soul as 
described by William James. The two movements are similar, 
the especial mark of each being the introduction of the 
concept of infinity: a concept explicit in Tolstoy's self- 
revelation, and implicit in Shakespearian tragedy. 

This was Tolstoy's solution : 

. . . Tolstoy, pursuing his unending questioning, seemed to come to one 
insight after another. First, he perceived that his conviction that life was 
meaningless took only this finite life into account. He was looking for the 
value of one finite term in that of another, and the whole result could 
only be one of those indeterminate equations in mathematics which end 
with = 0. Yet this is as far as the reasoning intellect by itself can go, 
unless irrational sentiment or faith brings m the infinite, (p. 184) 

This is the exact curve taken by the developing genius 
conscious or unconscious of Shakespeare when he ad 
vanced beyond the plays of pain to the plays of profundity 



SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 245 

d^ grandeur. It must be noted that the symptoms of 
spiritual sickness come first in a tragedy, Hamlet i but they 
tend to destroy its tragic significance and leave it not grandly 
tragic but rather distressing and painful. Hamlet is not a 
play of tragic form; it lacks the sense of unalterable move 
ment. The poet continued with two plays of intellectual 
analysis: and there, in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for 
Measure, we are not confronted with a movement toward 
death; the persons are left alive. But in the supreme tragedies 
there are two new elements. First, there is a sense of titanic 
passion, direction, and power in the delineation of the pro- 
tagonist, which certainly was not apparent in the oscillating 
incertitude of Hamlet\ second, there is the death-climax. 
The grandeur and essential optimism of the true Shake 
spearian tragedy is due to these two elements: passion and 
death. And both equally 'bring in the infinite*. Death was 
not wanted in Troilus and Cressida : its reverberations would 
awake suggestions of infinity which, in a play of that 
analytical texture, would be out of harmony. So, too, passion, 
or emotion, is, as Shakespeare's phraseology continually 
suggests, a thing of infinite significance beyond the reach of 
intellect. 1 Thus the hell of hatred at man's infirmity and the 
painted gloss of his civilization, the nausea and the disgust 
all this sickness of the soul is rendered significant in the 
tragic harmonies of Timon of Athens. Seen from the reverse 
side, from the angle of the soul of Timon bound passionately 
toward death as to a positive good, the hate-theme, so 
painful in Hamlet, so repellent in Thersites, becomes at once 
but a potentiality of the unrestful and aspiring soul of the 

* The essential 'infinity' of love and, indeed, of any passion or emotion i* recurrently 
suggested in Shakespeare. It is considered incapable of inclusion in shape of intellectual 
thought or action. Wide space metaphors are thus used, as in Axto*y a*J Clfopotre, 
i. i, 16-17; but more often we find sea-metaphors. In Tvotlftk NtgAt love 'receivrth as 
the sea' (i. i. 1 1) and 'is all as hungry as the sea' (n. iv. 102); Othello's thwarted lore becomes 
vengeance 'like to the Pontic sea* (ui. iii. 454) ; and Juliet says 
My bounty is as boundless as the sea 

My love as deep. (if li. 133) 

The association is most clearly pointed in The Ttoo Gentlemen of ftrona : 
A thousand oaths, an ocean of his tears 
And instances of infinite of love 

*****+fL. Warrant roe welcome to my Proteus. (n. vii. 69; 

sc4Pymbol of infinity is often related to the tempest-symbol of tragedy, tea-storm* 
mually symbolizing tragic passions. It is this infinity of the soul which Timon reaches 
tbe 'nothing* of death. Hence his sea-ihore grave. 



246 SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 

protagonist who, scorning all that is partial, all that is 
limited, embraces a union with infinity in death. The opti 
mism of Shakespearian tragedy is, no doubt, irrational : but 
it is potent. Rooted in a sense of death as a supreme good, 
death as a consummation and evaluation of passion, and 
passion as a justification of death, it is not nihilistic, but, in 
the finest sense of the words, philosophic and mystic. 
Especially in Timon of Athens^ during the final scenes, we 
scale the silences of eternity. Terrible and sombre, yet 
irresistibly grand, the death-mysticism of the play is com 
pelling, and leaves a memory, not of pain, or hate, but pro 
fundity and infinite significance. It is as though, by throwing 
a death-in-time into sharp contrast with a soul-life-out-of- 
time, the poet reveals the finite as silhouetted against the 
infinite. Thus 'irrational sentiment* (for Shakespeare) and 
*faith' (for Tolstoy) 'brings in the infinite', and the mind 
recognizes, along the fringes of the consciousness, the 
awakening light of an impossible revelation. 

Tolstoy, after his conversion, continued to reject the 
superficialities of civilization, and his attitude shows a 
remarkable likeness to that of the poet, as given in the 
utterances of Timon. Tolstoy lived the very history that 
Shakespeare traced out for him three centuries earlier. This 
was what Tolstoy thought: 

I gave up the life of the conventional world, recognizing it to be no 
life, but a parody on life, which its superfluities simply keep us from 
comprehending. (p. 185) 

To quote William James's comment: 

Tolstoy was one of those primitive oaks of men to whom the super 
ficialities and insincerities, the cupidities, complications, and cruelties of 
our polite civilization are profoundly unsatisfying, and for whom the 
eternal veracities lie with more natural and animal things, (p. 1 86) 

So, too, Timon, after his retiring to the woods in nakedness, 
speaks to the Bandits : 

Banditti. We are not thieves, but men that much do want. 
Timon. Your greatest want is, you want much of meat. 

Why should you want? Behold, the earth hath roots; 

Within this mile break forth a hundred springs; 

The oaks bear mast, the briers scarlet hips; 



SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 247 

The bounteous housewife, nature, on each bush 
Lays her full mess before you. Want ! Why want? 
First Bandit. We cannot live on grass, on berries, water, 

As beasts and birds and fishes. (iv. iii 421} 

'Tolstoy', says William James, 'did not reach pure happiness 
again.' He 'had drunk too deep of the cup of bitterness ever 
to forget its taste.' He concludes: 

For Tolstoy's perceptions of evil appear within their sphere to have 
remained unmodified. His later works show him implacable to the whole 
system of official values: the ignobility of fashionable life; the infamies 
of empire; the spuriousness of the Church, the vain conceit of the pro 
fessions; the meannesses and cruelties that go with great success; and 
every other pompous crime and lying institution of this world. To all 
patience with such things his experience has been for him a permanent 
ministry of death. (p. 187) 

To point the analogy, rather the exact correspondence, 
further is unnecessary. This passage might have been written 
of Timon : it is a perfect precis of his great speeches. Timon, 
too, curses the whole of civilization (iv. iii.): the 'learned 
pate* that 'ducks to the golden fool*; the 'lawyer* who 
'pleads false title'; 'the flamen that scolds against the quality 
of the flesh and not believes himself, and the 'counterfeit 
matron', whose 'habit* only is honest and herself a 'bawd*. 
Timon, too, knows that 

Religious canons, civil laws are cruel; 

Then what should war be ? (iv. iii. 60) 

that gold 'will knit and break religions' (iv. iii. 34), that 
if one man's a flatterer, 

So are they all ; for every grise of fortune 

Is smooth'd by that below. (iv. iii. 1 6) 

Therefore Timon, like Tolstoy, severs himself from civili 
zation : 

Therefore, be abhorr'd 
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men. (iv. iii. 20) 

For Timon, too, his experience has been *a permanent 
ministry of death'; and he, like Tolstoy, dies on the cold 
breast of nature apart from mankind. 

Above all, we find in both Shakespeare and Tolstoy a 
violent, exaggerated sex-satire. It is as though the extreme 



248 SHAKESPEARE AND TOLSTOY 

erotic idealism of the artist's mind stimulates a repressed 
sex-instinct into virulent, unruly force. In the work of 
Shakespeare it is reflected as an almost unhealthy horror of 
sexual impurity, an unnecessarily savage disgust at the 
physical aspect of sex unless hallowed by a spiritual and 
faithful love. The insistence of this element in the work of 
Shakespeare is most important. It is a raging and turbulent 
thing throughout. If we compare this strain in Shakespeare 
so consistently related to the hate-theme with the hatred 
of sexual impurity in Resurrection and The Kreuteer Sonata, 
we shall see how closely akin were these two great men on a 
matter deep in the soul of each: for of each it is true, as Mr. 
Masefield has said of Shakespeare, that 'sex ran in him like 
a sea'. 

I have shown how the rhythm of the spirit of Shake 
speare's plays from Hamlet to Timon of Athens is paralleled 
by the experience of Tolstoy. The mind of Tolstoy, unlike 
the genius of Shakespeare, advanced no further. 



XII 
SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

theme of Timon of Athens is closely connected 
with that of Othello. The comparison is interesting 
and important. In both plays we have a protagonist compact 
of generosity, trust, nobility. Both possess the same richness 
of soul j something of the same flood and swell of passion's 
music, a similar Oriental sense of display. At the crisis each 
swerves from passionate love to its opposite with a similar 
finality. Indeed, Othello's words, 

No, to be once in doubt 
Is once to be resolved, (HI. Hi. 179) 

are even truer of Timon than of himself. In both, toward the 
end, a massive harmony of words builds a serenity which 
grows out of the violent revulsion and loathing. Towards the 
close of each play we are struck with grand imagery of sun 
and moon and earth. 

In Othello the poet expresses dramatically the destructive 
force of cynicism and un-faith directed against that Love 
to which man aspires, and in whose reality he attempts to 
build his happiness. Ultimately, in so far as Othello expresses 
a universal truth, it must be considered to suggest the 
inability of love's faith to weather the conditions of this 
world. Raising the three protagonists to a high pitch of 
transcendental meaning, we see Othello as a symbol of noble 
mankind, Desdemona as a divinity comparable with Dante's 
Beatrice, 1 and lago as a kind of Mephistophelean This 

* Thw U not rash statement. The Provencal troubadours are t&= father* of modern 
European romantic literature. With them chivairic romance merged into the cult of the 
Virgin. So, too, with our modem novelist*, and the everlasting love-theme. Its appeal it 
wide and deep, touching not alone the heart but the soul: every romancer is a troubadour 
and hit theme of tare a symbol of divinity. 

* If we consider the first part of Famst and Otkelk we find that the imaginative equivalence 
of Mephitopfaekf and lago w very dote: me for a few tricks of Goethe's Devil, the one 
U no more supernatural in personality than the other. The spectator or reader accepts both 
with the same kind of acceptance, and Mephiitopheic** conjuring tricks demand littk 
more credulity than lago** intricate devices : his conversation with Cassio, for instance* 
staged to deceive Othello. Mephistopheles and lago are conceived with approximately the 
same degree of realism: but the Weird Sisters in Macbeth are conceived as wholly super 
natural beings and serve to point the difference clearly. 

249 



SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

meaning is not obvious in Othello: but it is seen to be implicit 
on the analogy of other plays. This general theme, in Othello 
projected into definite persons and events, is the very theme 
to be expressed later in Timon of Athens. There a change has 
taken place. Othello's figures are first men and women, and 
only second symbols; the plot is first a story, second a 
philosophic argument In Timon of Athens the reverse obtains. 
Timon is first a symbol, second a human being; the play is 
primarily an argument or parable, only secondarily forced, 
as it best may, to assume some correspondence with the 
forms and events of human affairs. Othello is an individual, 
in love with an individual. Timon is a creation of super 
human grandeur, a universalized and gigantic principle of 
generosity, nobility, love; loving, not an individual, but all 
men. He is a universal lover. The universal philosophy 
beneath the particularized persons and plot of Othello is thus 
retold more self-consciously in Timon of Athens: in a certain 
sense depending on our expectance of what, pure art 
should be retold philosophically rather than artistically; or, 
put more truly perhaps, directly rather than artificially. 
Timon thus replaces Othello; the love of Timon, or perhaps 
its symbol, the men of Athens that is, mankind replaces 
Desdemona; Apemantus replaces lago. The triangle is com 
plete. The underlying statement implicit in Othello becomes 
explicit in Timon of Athens. 

lago is fundamentally kin to the 'churlish philosopher' 
Apemantus. Apemantus represents a philosophic principle, 
an especial attitude to life. It is practically the equivalent of 
lago's attitude. Apemantus, like lago, is 'nothing if not 
critical'. Though he does not himself influence Timon, the 
philosophy of which he is the exponent certainly does, 
possessing him as lago's scheme possesses Othello. Apeman 
tus, in the universalized and philosophic drama of Timon of 
Athens^ is exactly analogous to lago in the play of individual 
persons and intricate action. The root principle of both is 
cynicism. Both win the same kind of victory. That is, though 
they superficially ruin the hero, they do not finally degrade 
his soul. Nor is it a difference of primary importance that 
lago is shown to have lied, and Apemantus is proved correct, 
[f we regard the hero's love as the pivot reality, we shall, 



SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 25! 

having regard to the philosophic, universal nature of Timon 
of Athens^ see that Timon's love is not shown to be at fault. 
In both plays a great love is violently wrenched from its 
symbol by different means: both heroes follow their own 
love to death. Timon of Athens, in fact, explains the meaning 
of Othello: it asserts the inability of any finite symbol to hold 
an infinite love in a world where a cynical philosophy, and 
the facts that philosophy derive from, exist. This statement 
is projected into a human plot first: later it is retold, as it 
were, more self-consciously. The main difference lies in the 
fact that Timon of Athens possesses a more significant and 
extended falling action. Othello drops in a trance, raves, 
murders; then recovering himself, it is true, shows the 
exotic richness of his soul in the final scene, expresses there 
his grandest poetry, reaches out to the silver beauty of the 
cold, unseeing bodies of the night sky, to the 'chaste stars', 
and moon : 

It is the very error of the moon ; 

She comes more near the earth than she was wont, 

And makes men mad. (v. ii, 107) 

But it is a poor correspondence to those latter scenes where 
Timon's soul voyages 'bold and forth on' to the furthest 
reaches of a human 'experience, till we Jose knowledge of 
his end in the darkness of eternity. Yet in both plays love 
is an infinity, a vast sea of passion, precipitate and uncon 
trollable. In both the tragic reversal of love is terrifying in 
its swiftness and tameless, irrevocable strength. In Othello 
each figure of the triangular scheme is carefully individua 
lized, puppets of the drama whose interplay is wrought on 
the web of human intrigue: lago's individuality deriving, 
however, chiefly from its negation of human reality and 
human definition within a setting where these are significant. 
In Timon of Athens there are again three forces : Timon, the 
transcendent lover; mankind, the bride of his soul; and 
Apemantus, the devil of cynicism. Yet here the plot is not 
one of action and incident, but is moved purely by the inter 
acting qualities and thoughts of human nature; played out, 
not in Venice or Cyprus or, in truth, if we read the play 
aright, in Athens, but on the wide stage of 'this beneath 
world', on the breast of that 'common mother*, earth, 



252 SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

beneath the eyes of the revolving sun and moon ; a dramatic 
movement which swims majestically through two whole acts 
within the moveless spaces of the eternal. Thus the con 
summate artistry of Othello develops into the mighty parable 
of Timon of Athens. . 

Othello and Timon of Athens are thus both concerned with 
the recurrent Shakespearian hate-theme: the one is the most 
concretely projected into human symbols, the other the 
most universal and profound dramatic statement of this 
Shakespearian philosophy. But these are not the only plays 
thus concerned. King Lear illustrates the same problem. 
Lear himself builds all his happiness in his three daughters 
love: one he distrusts unjustly, like Othello as to the 
others, he is disillusioned, like Timon. Instead of the swift 
reversal of love to its other aspect of hate, the greater part 
of King Lear plays on that mutual territory of madness due 
to the tension of two opposing principles forcing in opposite 
directions, till the reason snaps, leaving a hideous vision of 
the horrible and grotesque. The plot of King Lear is, funda 
mentally, the plot of Timon of Athens and Othello. Here Lear, 
Cordelia, and Edmund persons outstanding with vivid 
significance from the rest replace Othello, Desdemona, 
lago. Now Trot/us and Cressida also turns wholly on this 
theme of love disillusioned. Here the later theme of King 
Lear is viewed from a more purely intellectual, metaphysical 
standpoint: as in King Lear, the hero's mind is distraught 
by a knowledge of incompatibilities that leave no 'rule in 
unity itself, Thersites in this play forecasts Apemantus, 
possessing the same philosophical, inactive quality, since 
Troilus and Cressida, like Timon of Athens, appeals to a region 
of the mind philosophic rather than strictly dramatic. We 
can thus see an underlying relationship between Apemantus 
and Thersites on the one hand, and lago and Edmund on 
the other. The former are expressions of cynicism in language 
and dramatic comment; the latter express their cynicism in 
actions, directly influencing the course of the drama. The 
former are passive, the latter active. Their essential similarity 
is, however, important. Finally in Measure Jor Measure the 
same triple symbolism is represented, with certain modifica 
tions, by the Duke, Isabella, and Lucio. In each of these 



SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

plays we see the same three figures recurring. They are 
representative of (i) noble mankind, (ii) the supreme value 
of spiritual love, and (iii) the cynic. In each, the hero's 
nobility is suggested by a reference to his soldiership, which 
seems to be a necessary qualification for the Shakespearian 
hero, war being a positive value second only to love. That is 
true, too, of Hamlet. 

These considerations throw back light on the play that 
preludes all these later symbolizations of the hate-theme. 
Hamlet is of all Shakespeare's plays the most baffling. We 
can consider Hamlet as a man of noble nature and fine 
sensibility, agonized by a merciless convergence of cruel 
events; as a creature of loathing and sickly neurotic disgust 
at the thought of love's infidelity; as a symbol^of-death due 
to his ghost-converse and ghost-mission. All these are legiti 
mate comments. There is a quality in the supernatural 
mystery and death-atmosphere of the play which alone of 
these greater plays makes contact with the nightmare evil of 
Macbeth. For it should be clear that Julius Caesar, which 
preludes this succession, though, as I show elsewhere, it 
expresses the Macbeth rhythm, is on too erotic and brightly 
optimistic a plane to draw level with Macbeth in respect of 
evil atmosphere and power. Hamlet is pre-eminently the first 
of the plays to express vividly that mode of cynicism and 
hate which I have called the hate-theme. Love-cynicism and 
death-horror are powerful in the play. Hamlet is nauseated 
by Gertrude's unfaithfulness justly: he cynically rejects 
Ophelia- unjustly. Hamlet thus contains the germ of Troilus 
and Cressida, Othello, and Timon of Athens. Many other 
themes of later plays occur in Hamlet. Hamlet's mind and 
Ophelia's, like Lear's, are wrenched and distraught to mad 
ness by an unbearable knowledge: also the comic utterances, 
resultant from the extreme tension of pain, which Hamlet 
speaks after the Ghost has left him, forecast the grotesquely 
comic element of King Lear. The death-speeches of Measure 
for Measure continue the meditations or Hamlet, and the 
agony of Angelo in temptation is a replica of Claudius* 
prayer. Hamlet, in fact, contains the essence of all these later 
plays, crammed into it, unrestfully heaving to be free and 
find their consummate expression. Here is the truest reason 



254 SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

for the extreme difficulties and the extreme fascination of 
the play. 

One more important point is to be observed: there is 
no person to correspond to Thersites, lago, Edmund, 
Apemantus. There is no dramatic representative of cynicism 
in conflict 6"r comparison with the hero. The play lacks its 
Mephistopheles. Even though the Ghost be considered an 
equivalent, he soon disappears and is, anyway, too remote: 
as for Claudius, he is the very antithesis of the cynic. I have 
shown, too, that, properly regarded, Hamlet is far from being 
a wholly lovable personality. One side of his nature at least 
and it assumes power as the play progresses, thus fore 
casting the tragic movements to follow is bitter and in 
human as Apemantus, and, like Apemantus, poignant in the 
cynic sting of its wit. He has, too, lago's devilish cunning 
in action: he tortures Claudius as lago tortures Othello. 
The truth emerges that Hamlet is both hero and villain in 
his own drama. In Othello most clearly of all since Othello 
is most evidently a human story, the hero and villain are 
directly opposed in a drama of action and intrigue; in Timon 
of Athens they are juxtaposed as philosophical principles, 
human potentialities rather than human beings. From this 
view, King Lear and Troilus and Cressida tend toward the 
Othello and Timon of Athens types respectively. But in the 
solitary figure of Hamlet, incommensurable with those per 
sons in whose community he is set, there are confined both 
these principles. He is, from the viewpoint of transcendental 
interpretation, both noble mankind and devil. 1 His own 
madness is, in truth, *poor Hamlet's enemy* (v. ii. 253). 
He torments himself as well as others. The poet's mind, 
aware of a certain rhythm of human life associated with love, 
disillusion, and despair, in the later plays splits these forces 
of his own consciousness into appropriate dramatic figures, 
playing them off against each other, thereby respecting the 

1 Hence arises that antic, elfish, Puck-like quality in Hamlet vividly present from the 
play-scene onward : come actors will emphasize this more than others. It is worth noting 
that in a repertory company Hamlet, lago, and Apemantus will probably be best played 
by one leading actor, and Claudius, Othello, and Timon by another. It has been stated that 
lago should appear as a bluff soldier as he seems to Othello. I think this wrong and that 
it is better to sacrifice realism and let lago show something of his serpentine nature 
throughout in dress and bearing. We accept the duping of Othello: but it is always helpful 
to assist the visual imagination in pointing an all-important spiritual quality. 



SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

peculiar form and technique of drama. But in the single 
figure of Hamlet he has attempted to reflect the totality of 
his creating mind, and it is in respect of this that Hamlet 
himself more truly mirrors the personal that is, the whole 
creative mentality of the poet than any one of the other 
tragic heroes or villains I have noticed in this paper. Here 
we are close to the secret not only of the technical difficulty, 
the puzzlement of the play: at the same time we touch the 
source of the perennial fascination, the shifting lights of 
good and evil, the amazing vitality, of its protagonist. In so 
fully reflecting the whole of the poet's mind, Hamlet has, in 
fact, become too human to be properly dramatic. He has 
the mystery of reality about him. He has, as it were, started 
from his context with a life more real than art; as though a 
cinematograph figure began to walk out of the pictured 
sheet instead of across it which would be supremely 
interesting, but most disconcerting. In so far as we fix our 
attention on the universe of the whole play, and on that alone 
which is the natural interpretative approach Hamlet will 
appear superhuman among men and women: in so far as 
we forget the claims of art that is, the claims of the unique 
piece of work in its totality and concentrate on the pro 
tagonist alone, we see a man alive among puppets. 

These greater plays of Shakespeare, with the one tower 
ing exception of Macbeth, thus turn all fundamentally on the 
same axis. Attention to this substratum of pervading unity 
focuses for us the poles of reference by which Shakespearian 
tragedy in this genre of the hate-theme must be analysed. 
The mind of the dramatist is concerned with certain vital 
problems in which conjugal happiness is the supreme good 
to the exclusion of others: to that mind in composition 
and to ours in reading, these problems must be regarded not 
merely as important, but, within the confines of our imme 
diate attention, all-important. They assume universality. 
This Shakespearian drama is set within the framework of a 
love-convention, partly personal to the author, paitly a con 
vention of the modern world : one which has, moreover, a 
profound and universal psychological appeal. This con 
vention necessarily limits the universe of each drama, which 
thus itself automatically becomes truly universal in signifi- 



256 SYMBOLIC PERSONIFICATION 

cance. In so far as we see the action of each play as a perfect 
and complete statement within its own limits, we are forced 
to know it as a universal statement. Therefore it is by no 
fantasy of exaggeration that in interpretation the free-hearted 
hero ultimately becomes mankind; the villain, creature of 
cynicism, becomes the Devil, Goethe's prince of negation; 
and the loved one becomes the divine principle, Dante's 
Beatrice. These three figures persistently recur, in the various 
dresses and habiliments of Shakespeare's drama. Each of 
these tragedies drives the theme to a similar close. Nor do 
these symbols die with Timon of Athens', they reappear, in 
different form. In Antony and Cleopatra, a play pitched 
throughout on a note of visionary splendour and dazzling 
consciousness of love which is most nearly comparable of 
all past plays to the erotic spiritualized world of Julius 
Caesar^ the cynic reappears, pale reflex of Apemantus, in the 
common-sense rough commentary of Enobarbus: but here 
his worse fault is his desertion of his master at the hour of 
trial he is comparable with Peter rather than Judas in the 
Christian tragedy. And himself he gives us a fine description 
of Cleopatra, the principle and queen of love : 

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, 

Burn'd on the water . . . (n. ii. 199) 

Again, in the Final Plays, Pericles and Leontes lose their 
loved ones, the brothel-scenes in Pericles and the jealousy 
of Leontes reflecting the earlier hate-theme. But there is no 
dramatic figure of cynicism till in Cymbeline the triangle is 
again complete: Posthumus, lachimo, Imogen. In these 
plays the old theme is violently set in motion on the old lines, 
then just as violently reversed. Remembering the Shake 
spearian convention within which the plot-figures function 
and have their being, we shall be prepared to see a profound 
significance in these later plot-formations. For, within the 
limits of its convention, poetic drama reflects a truth not 
itself limited but universal. Finally, in the all-inclusive state 
ment of The Tempest^ the three figures are seen to be three 
modes of the poet's mind: there Prospero has mastered, and 
controls, both Ariel and Caliban. 



XIII 
THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

I NEXT shortly outline a rough metaphysic which emerges 
from a consideration of these plays as imitations of life. 

Two groups must be contrasted: first, plays of the hate- 
theme, that is: Hamlet^ Troilus and Cressida, Othelh y King 
Lear> Timon of Athens; second, plays analysing evil in the 
human mind: the Brutus-theme in Julius Caesar, Hamlet^ 
and Macbeth. The division cannot be absolute: Hamlet's 
mental agony has much of the abysmal and bottomless night 
mare fear of Macbeth\ Measure for Measure > being related 
to both sex and temptation, touches both groups. But I shall 
first notice the two kinds primarily in their difference, laying 
no emphasis on those points where they blend with each 
other and are seen to be ultimately two aspects of one 
reality: at the extremes it will be clear that the divergence is 
both rigid and important. I shall first make some general 
remarks to clarify the points at issue with reference to the 
Macbeth evil. 

Our understanding of Macbeth is assisted by attention to 
a scene in Richard //. The Queen speaks : 

... yet again, me thinks, 
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb, 
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul 
With nothing trembles . . . (H. ii. 9) 

Bushy answers : 

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows, 

Which shows like grief itself, but is not so; 

For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears, 

Divides one thing entire to many objects; 

Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon 

Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry 

Distinguish form : so your sweet majesty, 

Looking awry upon your lord's departure, 

Finds shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail; 

Which, look'd on as it is, is nought but shadows 

Of what it is not. (11.11,14) 

257 



258 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

We remember Macbeth 's 'Nothing is but what is not*. The 
Queen's mental state is a confused and blurred vision, a 
mysterious and dark foreboding in the soul, causing fear: the 
similarity to the Macbeth universe is evident. The Queen 
answers : 

It may be so; but yet my inward soul 

Persuades me it is otherwise : howe'er it be, 

I cannot but be sad; so heavy sad 

As, though on thinking on no thought I think, 

Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink. (n* ii. 28) 

There is more play on the word 'nothing* finishing with the 
Queen's: 

. . . nothing hath begot my something grief; 

Or something hath the nothing that I grieve. (n. ii. 36) 

The Queen's state of foreboding and fear is justified. Ill 
news is announced, and she cries: 'Now hath my soul 
brought forth her prodigy'; she is a 'gasping new-delivered 
mother 1 . So, too, in Macbeth the Weird Sisters prophesy 
truth. In this speech we* should note that it represents a state 
of fear, nameless, associated with the parallel concepts 
'nothing' and 'soul' which are, indeed, almost interchange 
able in Shakespeare; 1 confusion on the plane of actuality, as 
noted by-Bushy; and prophecy, rational^ untrustworthy, 
yet empirically justified. As in this passage, the 'soul* in 
Shakespeare is often regarded as 'prophetic'. 2 Macbeth, 
too, endures fear and a sense of abysmal deeps of the soul's 
'nothing' (p. 153); related to action resulting in disorder in 
the actual wodd in other words, crime; prophecy, too, is 
closely interwoven throughout the endurance of Macbeth's 
evil. It is true that the Queen's fears are not connected with a 
guilty conscience as seem to be those of Gertrude in Hamlet : 

To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is, 

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss . . . (iv. v. 17) 

1 Bassanio refers to the consummation of his soul's desire as 'a wild of nothing, save of 
joy* (TJte Merchant of Fetace^ i. ii. 183). The poet makes 'shapes' out of 'airy nothing' 
(A Midsummer JNtg&t's Dream, v. i. 16). The incoherence of madness is a 'nothing* which 
is 'more than matter' (Hamlet, iv v. 173). Dreams are 'nothing' (Romeo and Juliet, i. iv. 
96100). See also Cymbchne, iv. a. 300. Both 'nothing* and 'soul* are, of course, the 'un 
conscious mind' of psychology (see also The Crown of Life, p. 82). 
Cp. Romeo aid. Jultet^ m. v. 54,- Hamlet, i. v. 40; Sonnet cvii : 
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul 
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come . . . 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 259 

or those called down on Tarquin by Lucrece: 

Let ghastly shadows his lewd eyes affright; 
And the dire thought of his committed evil 
Shape every bush a hideous shapeless devil. 

(The Rape ofLucrecf, 971) 

But the difference is superficial. In Richard II the relation 
between the mental state and the outer world is independent 
of the individual's actions; in Hamlet and The Rape oj Lucrece 
it succeeds crime; in Macbeth it preludes and accompanies 
crime. Only by letting our vision of metaphysical references 
be blurred by a disproportionate attention to the guilt-factor 
shall we fail to see an essential and profound kinship; in 
fact, a unity. Therefore a close attention to the Queen's 
speech serves to emphasize those points I have noticed in my 
analysis of Macbeth. 

A further comparison throws the Macbeth vision into 
stronger relief. Macbeth is, as I observe elsewhere, a repetition 
of the Angelo-theme in Measure for Measure. The stories 
show similar rhythms of original surprise and self-conflict 
in the hero, a swift and overpowering victory of temptation, 
a resultant agony of loneliness, guilt, and fear, followed by a 
rapid excess of crime, culminating in an open condemnation 
and failure which brings peace. But Angela's yords in 
temptation are less profound than Macbeth's. His will-power 
seems to be actively engaged in opposing temptation, and 
he cannot understand why his 'heart' should be so much 
stronger than his 'words* of prayer. He is at a loss: 

When I would pray and think, I think and pray 

To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words ; 

Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, 

Anchors on Isabel : Heaven in my mouth, 

As if I did but only chew his name ; 

And in my heart the strong and swelling evil 

Of my conception. (11. iv. l) 

Angelo's speech is more superficial than Macbeth's. It shows 
us a consciousness of conflict in which a will-power is pitted 
against a stronger emotion : it is a clear picture of what most 
of us know. The Macbeth revelation, however, goes deeper. 
It suggests in highly imaginative language the true nature 
of evil the dissociation from all external phenomena of the 



260 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

individual soul. There seems here no room for the will- 
concept. The poet makes his dramatic person aware of the 
deepest channels of his own being. In a sense, we can say 
that the persons of dramatic poetry at its intensest are always 
made to do this: they utter, not those things of which 
humanity is normally aware, but the springs of action, the 
deep floods of passion, the essence of human reality all 
which the normal self-consciousness of individuality tends 
to blur and veil Angelo is thus conceived self-consciously, 
like a real man: his words might almost be spoken by any 
one, and are readily intelligible. Macbeth's, however, are 
very difficult. 'Will-power' seems to have vanished. 1 The 
hero explains for us the true nature of his experience, which 
in real life he would not have known. In these respects the 
tragedy of Macbeth tends to answer the psychological prob 
lem of Measure for Measure^ and the similar one of Claudius 
in Hamlet (in. iii. 36-72). Claudius endures a conflict exactly 
analogous to Angelo's. Both engage in the same kind of 
futile struggle. In Macbeth the poet goes deeper. He here 
relates the temptation-theme as a whole to such scattered 
single speeches in earlier works as I have quoted above from 
Richard II and The Rape of Lucrece and builds a whole play, 
as it were, out of those earlier flashes of insight. Which, 
moreover, is the normal Shakespearian process. The supreme 
plays are always explications in imaginative detail on a big 
scale of experiences which are worded, with just the same 
quality, colour, and profundity, in scattered metaphors, 
speeches, or incidents, in his earlier work. Macbeth especially 
is often forecast. For instance, again in The Rape of Lucrece, 
we have: 

O, deeper sin than bottomless conceit 

Can comprehend in still imagination ! (7 O1 ) 

It is just that power of * bottomless conceit' which the Macbeth 
vision adds to the psychological analysis of Measure for 
Measure. 

* 'Will 1 clearly finds no place in the passionate world of the great tragedies. To say that 
Shakespeare chose heroes lacking in will-power is less valuable than to say that poetic- 
tragedy is concerned only with thoc deeper springs of action which the will-concept tends 
to blur. Failure to resist temptation is generally interpreted as lack of 'will-power*. This 
is, indeed, the word's most frequent use: 'will 1 is a thing most generally known by it* 
absence, and hence it is fundamental!} unreal. 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 26l 

Ghastly 'shapes* and 'forms' are seen by the inward eye of 
the mind in evil. They are often considered as unreal, yet 
they may be powerful of effect. Messala speaks over Cassius' 
dead body: 

O hateful error, melancholy's child, 

Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men 

The things that are not ? (Julius Caesar, v. in. 67) 

We hear of 

. . . moody, moping and dull melancholy, 
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair, 
And at her heels a huge infectious troop 
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life. 

(Comedy of Errors, v. i. 79) 

It is a kind of madness and like madness is *cunning' in 
'bodiless creation' (Hamlet^ in. iv, 137). Indeed, the delirium 
quality of Macbeth makes contact with the insanity-theme 
of King Lear^ the *evil' and *hate' modes touching at this 
point. What the tortured mind sees is often the Very 
painting' of 'fear* as in Macbeth (in. iv. 61). Or we may find 
a nightmare-state of prophecy, related to blood and disorder 
and turbulence in the actual world : 

... I have dream'd 

Of bloody turbulence, and this whole night 
Hath nothing been but shapes and forms of slaughter. 

(TroUus and Cre ss ida , v. iii. 10) 

Above all, this consciousness is a state of fear: fear which is 
contrasted with its opposite love: 

Fears make devils of cherubins; they never see truly . . . O, let my kdy 
apprehend no fear : in all Cupid's pageant there is presented no monster. 
(Troi/jus and Crcssida, HI, ii. 729) 

It is here suggested that perfect love is a state of security. 
And yet love, too, can induce a state of inward tremor 
imaginatively twin to Macbeth's first anguished encoun 
tering of evil : 

Even such a passion doth embrace my bosom : 

My heart beats thicker than a feverous pulse; 

And all my powers do their bestowing lose, 

Like vassalage at unawares encountering 

The eye of majesty. (TreUus and Creuida, in. ii. 3 5) 



262 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

The same Macbeth similarity is apparent in another love- 
speech : 

. . . there is such confusion in my powers, 

As, after some oration fairly spoke 

By a beloved prince, there doth appear 

Among the buzzing pleased multitude ; 

Where every something, being blent together, 

Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy, 

Express'd and not expressed. 

(Tkf Merchant of Venice, in, ii. 178) 

The states of extreme evil and supreme love have a definite 
imaginative similarity. They stand out from other modes in 
point of a certain supernormal intensity, a sudden, crushing, 
conquering power, a vivid and heightened consciousness. 
In these respects they seem to transcend the hate-mode, 
except where that touches madness. Macbeth and Antony and 
Cleopatra are thus supreme in point of imaginative trans 
cendence. 

The hate-theme in Shakespeare is necessarily related to 
love. It is dependent on the failing of love's reality. Hamlet, 
Troilus, Othello, Lear, Timon, all endure essentially the 
same pain with reference to love, though in Hamlet this is 
included within the wider death-consciousness. They see 
their ideal drained, so to speak, of spiritual significance. The 
flame of love's faith is extinguished, there is an odour of oil 
and smoke. The bestial elements of man assume dispro 
portionate significance as the spiritual is denied. Hence the 
animal references in Othello's paroxysm, Lear's madness, 
and in Timon of Athens. The flesh, no longer irradiated by 
the divinity of love, becomes essentially unclean. Sex is foul. 
Man is an animal aping something he has no right to claim 
as his. In every instance the hero suffers through a wrenching, 
a drawing out, of something deep within him: his love, 
bodied into a symbol, is banished thence and it is as the 
banishment of his own soul from himself. For the soul has 
perfect reality only when it is projected into some 'shape* or 
'form'. This is, indeed, suggested by Ulysses' dialogue with 
Achilles, in Troilus and Cressida> which has profound impli 
cations. The dialogue runs as follows : 

U/yssfs. A strange fellow here 

Writes me : *That man, how dearly ever parted, 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN MF.TAPHYSIC 263 

How much in having, or without or in, 
Cannot make boast to have that which he hath, 
Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection; 
As when his virtues shining upon others 
Heat them and they retort that heat again 
To the first giver.' 

Achilles. This is not strange, Ulysses. 

The beauty that is borne here in the face 
The bearer knows not, but commends itself 
To others' eyes; nor doth the eye itself, 
That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself, 
Not going from itself; but eye to eye opposed 
Salutes each other with each other's form; 
For speculation turns not to itself, 
Till it hath travelTd and is mirror'd there 
Where it may see itself. This is not strange at all. (in. iii. 95) 

This implies a system of symbolism which should be con 
sidered in relation to Troilus's speech on love at n, ii. 61-5 
a speech which I have already analysed. On the plane of 
(i) human intercourse, and (ii) sense-perception, the subject 
has no knowledge of his own reality apart from an object. 
Man cannot 'of himself know his own qualities 'for aught* 
till he sees them reflected in others (in. iii. 1 18). Regarding 
love as the supreme and most intense expression of (i) 
human intercourse and (ii) sense-perception, we find this 
dialogue to imply that the lover sees his own soul in his 
beloved: a thought equivalent to Troilus's statement, and 
recurrent in other passages of Shakespeare. 1 

The Shakespearian hero suffers an agonizing incertitude 
at the expulsion of his love or soul from its symbol. Hamlet 
dies in this agony, this incertitude; Troilus projects his soul 
into war and revenge, directed against the Greeks, symbols 
of his hate; Othello finds his ideal again too late, and follows 
it to death; Lear endures agony till his love-soul regains a 
temporary home in Cordelia. Timon alone makes no terms 
with actuality. His infinity of love banished once, he scorns 
to project it into any finite 'shape', but lets it pursue its 
lonely derelict course: that is, lets it express itself as 
pure negation, pure hate. This is, in brief, the nature of 
the hate-theme expressed in terms of a metaphysic of sym- 

> Troilus and Crinida, m. ii. 1 55; Romto tmdjultet, u. u. 164; Twl/tk Niftt, i. T. 290; 
CymMint, \. v. 264; Lwft Labour's Lett, iv. iii. 316,- Sonnets, xxii, 6$ rsxi, 14; chc, 4. 



264 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

holism suggested by numerous passages of Shakespeare: 
which metaphysic is also necessitated by the Shakespearian 
evil. There are thus two primary uses of *souP in Shake 
speare. First, the Shakespearian lover sees his 'soul' reflected 
in his loved one; second, the victim of evil endures a hideous 
vision of the abysmal 'nothing* of his own soul. This is the 
'bottomless conceit 1 that comprehends blackest evil. Now if 
we construct a rigid scheme based on these suggestions, and 
will admit a dualism of (i) soul or spirit and (ii) actualitv 
and the manifest world of sense, then we may view with 
clarity three important kinds of Shakespearian thought or 
vision. We can say that good is love and exists when the 
actual burns with a spiritual flame kindled, or recognized, 
or supplied by the regarding soul ; it tends to be immediate 
and intuitive. 1 We can next observe that the Shakespearian 
hate, as expressed recurrently in what I have called the 'hate- 
theme 1 , is an awareness of the world of actuality unspiritual- 
ized, and shows a failure to body infinite spirit into finite 
forms and a consequent abhorrence and disgust at these 
forms. It tends to originate in a backward time-thinking, 
the recurrent plot-symbol being the failing of love's vision 
in the temporal chain of events. And, thirdly, the Shake 
spearian evil is a vision of naked spirit, which appears as a 
bottomless chasm of 'nothing' since it is unfitted to any 
external symbols; which yet creates its own phantasmal 
shapes of unholy imagination and acts of disorder and crime, 
making of them its own grim reality; which is concerned 
not only with the backward temporal sequences of mani 
festation as they normally appear, but looks forward and has 
forbidden knowledge of futurity, trades in half-truths and 
truths of prophecy; an inmost knowledge of the time- 
succession which, though not wholly false, is yet poisonous; 

i This intuitive and timeless nature of love's integrity is expressed finely in Tnfbu 
ami Cressitht, rv. v. 165 : 

What's put and what's to come is strew 'd with husks 

And formless rain of oblivion; 

But in this extant moment, faith and troth, 

Strsin'd purely from all hollow bias-drawing, 

Bid* *h*g, with most divine integrity, 

From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome. 
The Gospel Command to take no thought for the morrow is an analogy on the plane of 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 265 

a sight of that spiritual machinery which man cannot properly 
understand and into which he penetrates at his peril. 

The three modes of love, hate, and evil are thus rendered 
firmly distinct on this basis of a dualistic opposition of 
'actuality* and 'spirit*. That this dualism is not meaningless 
may be seen from Macbeth's reaction to the Weird Sisters' 
prophecies. Futurity has meaning only as an activity of 
'mind' or 'spirit*. In seeing the future, Macbeth thus views 
the 'spiritual* dissociated from the 'actual*. 1 In Shakespearian 
phraseology, which is here remarkably consistent and 
copious, spiritual essences are 'born* into 'shapes' by 'time'.* 
Human birth, 3 and also artistic creation 4 5 are the result of a 
union between earthly and divine elements. Thus Macbeth's 
vision of the future is a knowledge of the essence, without 
a clear image of the 'shape*. 'Thoughts' are 'unveiled in 
their dumb cradles* (Troilus and Cressida^ m. iii. 201). The 
process is described in Troilus and Cressida : 

Sith every action that hath gone before, 
Whereof we have record, trial did draw 
Bias and thwart, not answering the aim, 
And that unbodied figure of the thought 
That gave't surmised shape. (i. iii. ! 3) 

* The implications of this are similar to those of Coleridge's statement that the Weird 
Sisters represent 'the imaginative dissociated from the good*. For the concept of 'the good' 
is ultimately dependent on human and temporal actuality. Therefore the Weird Sisters 
represent 'the imaginative dissociated from all human and temporal symbols'. 

1 The time-shape association occurs at: Troth: end Creuifa, i. ii*. 385 ; Hamlet, m. i. 1 3 x 
and iv. vii. 149-50; Low's Labour's Lost, iv. iii. 378 5 z Henry IF, m. ii. 362, The time-birth 
association is copious: Penalty rr. Pro. 45; Ike Winter's Talc, iv. Chor. 8, 27; Qtlttik, 
i. iii. 377 and 410; Antony aind Cltcpatre, n. ii. in and m. vii. 81; Htmlet, m. i, 175; 
Romeo atuf Jvfat* . Pro. 2 ; CyMhu % I. rr. 136 ; Macbeth* i. iii. 58 and n. iil 65. The whole 
value of this image is emphasized in : 

X have a young conception in my brain; 
Be you my tone to bring it to some shape, 

(Tn>ibu aniCremd&t i. iii. 3iz) 

'Shape* is also used in Shakespeare for one element of the finished result of artistic 
composition. 

3 The dualistic nature of human birth is suggested at Twelftk Xigkt^ v. i. 246-8; 
QtkeUo, n. i. 64; Tkt Merchant of ^tiace, v, i. 04-5 : in these the body is considered as 
clothing to the soul. The implications of this are put dearly in Romeo and Juliet : 

Since birth and heaven and earth, all three do meet 

In thee at once. (m. iii. 1 19) 

4 The thought is developed in A Midsummer-Sight'* Dream, v. i 12-17, and RicfuvJ 1L, 
v. v. i-u. In the latter, the brain-soul opposition must be equated with the intellect- 
intuition opposition of Bergson's system, in which intellect is eminently practical and 
evolved in order to use material shapes. 



266 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 

The prophecy-theme in Macbeth is of this kind. Macbeth's 
fault is that he interprets prophecies too readily into his own 
blundering 'shapes' of actuality. His first crime deliberately 
puts prophecy into immediate action, instead of waiting for 
it to be born naturally; his later ones rest on assurances 
which, when they materialize, turn out to be different from 
what he expected. Now the three modes of evil, hate, and 
love can be said to be symbolized dramatically in the three 
life-visions of Macbeth^ King Lear^ Antony and Cleofatra. I 
have shown that the first two can be related respectively to 
the two concepts, spirit and actuality. Each by itself is inade 
quate, and the fulness of vision results in the love-mode 
where spirit and actuality are one. Three small incidents, 
connected with sleep, in these plays further illuminate their 
qualities. 

Macbeth speaks to the Doctor : 

Macbeth. How does your patient, doctor ? 

Doctor* Not so sick, my lord, 

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies, 

That keep her from her rest. 
Macbeth. Cure her of that. 

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 

Raze out the written troubles of the brain, 

And with some sweet oblivious antidote 

Cleanse the stufFd bosom of that perilous stuff 

Which weighs upon the heart ? 
Doctor* Therein the patient 

Must minister to himself. (v. iii. 37) 

The blacbetk experience is essentially one beyond the 
actual, beyond all natural laws. Compare this with King Lear. 
Cordelia, too, talks to a Doctor: 

Cordelia. What can man's wisdom 

In the restoring his bereaved sense ? 

He that helps him take all my outward worth. 
Doctor. There is means, madam : 

Our foster-nurse of nature is repose, 

The which he lacks; that to provoke in him, 

Are many simples operative, whose power 

Will close the eye of anguish. 
Cordelia. All blest secrets, 

All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth, 

Spring with my tears 1 (iv. iv.8 N 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 267 

In King Lear the ill is natural; the remedy is natural. In 
Macbeth the evil is supernatural ; and there is no remedy but 
an equivalent supernatural power of grace, as described at 
length by Malcolm, speaking of the good King of England, 
and his 'miraculous work* of healing (iv. iii. 147). Finally, we 
may observe a somewhat similar incident in Antony and 
Cleopatra. Cleopatra describes to Dolabella her dream of 
Antony : 

I dream'J there was an Emperor Antony: 

O, such another sleep, that I might see 

But such another man \ (v. ii. 76) 

She describes her wondrous dream, and concludes: 

Cltopatra. Think you there was, or might be, such a man 

As this I dream*d of? 

Dolabflla. Gentle madam, no. 

Cleopatra. You lie, up to the hearing of the gods. 

But, if there be, or ever were, one such, 

It's past the size of dreaming : nature wants stuff 

To vie strange forms with fancy ; yet, to imagine 

An Antony, were nature's piece 'gainst fancy, 

Condemning shadows quite. 

(v. ii. 93) 

These three incidents form microcosms of their respective 
worlds. They point (i) the transcendental unreality of the 
Macbeth experience, (ii) the pure realism or naturalism of 
King Lear, and (iii) the transcendental realism of Antony and 
Cleopatra. The third is thus the sum of the first two. The 
three modes are related to evil, hate, and love; or fear, 
knowledge, and recognition of reality in the widest and 
profoundest implications of the word. 

I use so rigid a scheme purely to clarify our knowledge 
of the relations existing between different plays: it is a useful 
and indeed necessary basis of commentary. But in thus 
relating and subduing the Macbeth experience of evil to a 
monistic system it will be evident that I have contradicted 
my statement in analysis of Macbeth that the evil it projects 
imaginatively is an absolute evil. This is true. But it seems 
safest in so difficult a matter to sacrifice logical consistency 
to clarity. While we have regard to the Macbeth experience, 
we have so powerful an intuition of evil that no word of less 
violent impact than 'absolute' is completely satisfactory; but, 



268 THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYS1C 

from a balanced view of the whole of Shakespeare's work, 
that evil is best regarded as relative. It is, so to speak, 
absolute whilst it lasts, which is, perhaps, equivalent to 
denying it any absolute reality. Within the Macbeth universe 
and within that universe only the evil has its undisputed 
wa y f or a while. The bark is tempest-tossed, but cannot be 
finally lost : in the last act the sickening eclipse is lifted, and 
Macbeth himself emerges, as I have noticed, unafraid. A 
further consideration all but resolves our difficulty. The 
absolute reality of the evil is contingent on the objectivity 
of the Weird Sisters. Now they are clearly conceived as 
objective. They appear on the stage alone, cannot be con 
sidered as purely figments of Macbeth's or Banquo's mind. 
They are objective, however, only in the sense that the other 
persons and events are objective: but these other persons 
and events have slight individual meaning independent of 
the Macbeth vision as a whole. The whole play is cast in a 
uniquely visionary, unrealistic mould : it represents a spirit 
ual, not an actual, reality. It is the most subjective of Shake 
speare's tragedies. Either we can say that the whole Macbeth 
universe reflects the mental experience of the protagonist 
a technical device to make us feel his personal experience; 
or, better still, we can regard the play as throughout a single 
imaginative creation of Shakespeare's mind, expressive of 
one aspect of the poet's soul rather than imitative of 
humanity, a vision in which Macbeth, Banquo and his 
Ghost, the Weird Sisters, the air-drawn dagger, Duncan's 
horses (which eat each other), and the poetry of darkness so 
emphatic, possess all an equivalent, personal, lyric reality. 
Whichever view we adopt, we see that, though the Weird 
Sisters are conceived objectively, they possess this objec 
tivity only within an intensely subjective universe. They 
are real in relation to a universe itself unreal. Their objec 
tivity is conditional only. Again, we are brought to the 
knowledge that the evil is absolute only within certain limits, 
either within the limits of the Macbeth vision with all its 
technical machinery, or within the limits of time, as I 
observe above: it is absolute whilst it lasts. This is probably 
the proper road to solution of the question of evil in its widest 
application: we may say that it has a 'conditional reality*. 



THE SHAKESPEARIAN METAPHYSIC 269 

In conclusion, it may be observed that the two modes of 
hate and evil are only provisionally distinct. This appears 
from a short examination of Hamlet^ Macbeth^ and Timon of 
Athens. Hamlet foreshadows Macbeth in: (i) The supernatural 
machinery which early influences the protagonist; (ii) the 
quality of Hamlet's melancholy, fixed in something negative 
yet powerful ; and (iii) the process by which his mental state 
forces him to express himself in actions of blood and des 
truction. But Hamlet also foreshadows the hate-theme of 
Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Timon of Athens. Also the 
death-consciousness of Hamlet is to be related to the death- 
mysticism implicit in the following tragedies. I conclude 
that the Hamlet experience in its totality contains the essence 
of these later plays. For the tragedies of the hate-theme are 
not independent of the death-theme. The death-conclusions 
of Othello and King Lear are important : they throw the prob 
lem of the drama into relation with the mystery of eternity. 
But Macbeth starts where these plays leave off. Macbeth 
endures an awareness of 'nothing', a death-consciousness, 
and we see a positive and active symbolism of his experience 
in his acts of destruction. An awareness of essential nothing 
ness produces acts of nihilism. In Timon of Athens all these 
elements receive coherent, allegorical form, with a strong 
emphasis on hate and death. Since Timon withdraws from 
humanity the word 'evil* is unsuitable. Here hate is shown as j 
the revulsion from actuality of a noble, loving soul: dis- 
illusioned and thwarted, Timon aspires to the *nothing' of 
death. Thus in Hamlet the sequence of plays to follow is al 
ready implicit: Timon of Athens is in the nature of a retrospect. 

Again, we may consider both modes as representing 
essentially a severance of the individual from his environ 
ment. In this state of disharmony the protagonist concen 
trates attention either (i) on the outer things he has lost or 
(ii) on his own starved soul. Or we may say that in King Lear 
outer disorder (Gloucester's speech about the 'late eclipses' 
supports this) reacts on the protagonist, disrupting his mind; 
whereas in Macbeth the disorder in the protagonist's mind 
disrupts the state. We are thus regarding two aspects of 
a single reality: their relation is most closely welded in 
Hamlet, and most clearly exposed in Timon of Athens. 



XIV 

TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 
(i934) 



proper study of Shakespeare's work is only be- 
j[ ginning. Appreciation has been granted in full 
measure; praise has reverberated down the centuries; but 
understanding has kept no pace with applause. And, indeed, 
applause has often been misdirected. The splendours of 
Shakespeare are vast and inexhaustible; but there are some 
elements in his work which are not, which, by its very 
nature, cannot be, the fine pieces of realistic exactitude to 
which his idolaters have raised them. The Shakespearian 
world does not exactly reflect the appearances of human 
or natural life. The events in his world are often strange to 
the point of impossibility. Whoever knew the sun go out? 
What man has ever acted as did King Lear, what woman 
as Hermione? Shakespeare has been praised to excess for 
his 'characterization'. The term is vague. But, if we take it 
in its most usual and popular sense, as photographic veri 
similitude to life, depending on clear differentiation of each 
person in the play or novel, we find 'characterization* not 
only not the Shakespearian essence, but actually the most 
penetrable spot to adverse criticism that may be discovered 
m his technique. Thence two great minds have directed their 
hostility: Tolstoy and Bridges. Here I shall show that those 
attacks on Shakespeare, often perfectly justifiable within 
limits, are yet based on a fundamental misunderstanding of 
his art; but that such misunderstanding is nevertheless 
extremely significant and valuable, since it forces our appre 
ciation and interpretation from excessive psychologies of 
'character*, which run to waste over a wide expanse of theory, 
into legitimate channels of inquiry into the true substance 
and solidity of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry. We shall then 
see, too, that Tolstoy's further objection to Shakespeare's 
lack of any religious essence in his work is also quite without 
foundation. 

270 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 2J I 

Shakespeare is a great poet. We have, misled by nine 
teenth-century romantic criticism, regarded him rather as 
a great novelist. The position is put trenchantly by Professor 
Barker Fairley while reviewing my Shakespearian interpre 
tations in The Canadian Forum. I quote from his fine state 
ment: 

. . . For although I was brought up in the view that Shakespeare was 
primarily interested in character I never quite believed it, because it never 
enabled me to read Shakespeare with the deep satisfaction that I have 
learned to expect from great poetry. Lacking any clue to the universal 
values which I felt must be discoverable in him I always came away 
hungry and dissatisfied from my study of him. And it seemed to confirm 
me in this private suspicion of mine about Shakespeare that all other 
great poets manage with so few characters. 

We shall find a closely similar expression by Tolstoy of his 
failure to derive satisfaction from Shakespeare equivalent to 
that he has 'learned to expect* from other poets. Professor 
Barker Fairley mentions Homer, Dante, and Aeschylus, and 
observes that if we make Shakespeare's power depend on 
characterization we align him rather with Tolstoy and Balzac 
than with them: 

Surely it is for the story-tellers and the recorders to multiply character 
and for the poets to reach beyond these individual variations into the 
philosophic invariables. 

Again : 

Yet we go on as before, treating Shakespeare as the student of person 
ality, the multiplier of character. Why do we do it ? Because we have 
nothing to put in its place. Finding ourselves incapable of coping with the 
dark depths that lurk behind the tragedies, unable to see clearly or to 
move clearly in them, baffled and confused by them, we retreat again 
into the dramatic daylight and content ourselves with what we can see 
there. This is what the orthodox view of Shakespeare amounts to; it is a 
pis aller, a second best, a confession of defeat. We may make a virtue of 
it and talk of the divine inexplicability of Shakespeare, of the all-seeing 
poet too wise for philosophy, and what not, and all we mean is that 
when we try to enter the dark cellarage of his mind our little candles 
blow out and we withdraw in fear and confusion. 

That appears to me to be an admirable exposition of the 
whole matter. We have not understood Shakespeare. And 
our error has been this: a concentration on 'character 1 and 
realistic appearances generally, things which do not con- 



272- TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

stitute Shakespeare's primary glory; and a corresponding 
and dangerous, indeed a devastating, neglect of Shake 
speare's poetic symbolism. Hence our age-long inconscience 
of those twin pillars which support the architecture of the 
Shakespearian universe: 'tempests' and 'music'. 

II 

Tolstoy was genuinely pained and perplexed by his 
inability to appreciate Shakespeare. My quotations will be 
drawn from the essay 'Shakespeare and the Drama* in the 
fine volume Tohtoy on An (O.U.P.), a massive collection of 
some of the most masculine, incisive, and important criticism 
that exists; all, whether we agree or disagree, of so rock-like 
an integrity and simplicity that its effect is invariably tonic 
and invigorating, and often points us directly, as in this essay 
on Shakespeare, to facts before unobserved, yet both obvious 
and extremely significant. Tolstoy sincerely tried to like 
Shakespeare : 

My perplexity was increased by the fact that I have always keenly felt 
the beauties of poetry in all its forms : why then did Shakespeare's works, 
recognized by the whole world as works of artistic genius, not only fail to 
please me, but even seem detestable? (p. 394). 

Tolstoy found Shakespeare's works 'insignificant and simply 
bad'; they induced in him 'repulsion, weariness, and bewil 
derment* (p. 394). Nobly he appears to have read, and re 
read them, 'several times over' in Russian, English, and 
German (p. 394). Always with the same result. He is definite 
in his conclusions that Shakespeare is a poor writer. Shake 
speare is 'a man quite devoid of the sense of proportion and 
taste' (p. 437); his plays are compositions 'having absolutely 
nothing in common with art or poetry' (p. 439); they are 
'works which are beneath criticism, insignificant, empty, and 
immoral* (p. 447); and again, Shakespeare is an 'insignificant, 
inartistic, and not only non-moral but plainly immoral 
writer' (p. 463). 

Where a mind like Tolstoy's can so violently oppose the 
approbation of the centuries there is something curiously 
wrong. Nor is it merely a question of Tolstoyan prejudice. 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 273 

Robert Bridges, generally acknowledged as a fine poet 
and critic, reacted to Shakespeare in a precisely similar 
fashion. I quote from the 1927 edition (O.U.P.) of his 1907 
essay The Influence of the Audience on Shakespeare's Drama* 
Bridges regarded Shakespeare as a genius prostituting his 
art to please his public. Hence: 

. . . Shakespeare should not be put into the hands of the young without 
the warning that the foolish things in his plays were written to please the 
foolish, the filthy for the filthy, and the brutal for the brutal; and that, if 
out of veneration for his genius we are led to admire or even tolerate such 
things, we may be thereby not conforming ourselves to him, but only 
degrading ourselves to the level of his audience, and learning contamina 
tion from those wretched beings who can never be forgiven their share 
in preventing the greatest poet and dramatist of the world from being 
the best artist. (p. 28) 

True, Bridges at every turn admits the supreme power and 
ability of Shakespeare, and is at pains to find reasons for his 
faults. He has the advantage, which Tolstoy had not, of 
receiving the Shakespearian poetry as no foreigner can ever 
quite receive it. But he is unequivocal in his dislikes : 

Exasperation is the word that I should choose to express the state of 
feeling which the reading of the Othello induces in me ... (p. 24) 

Elsewhere Bridges complains of Shakespeare's carelessness, 
disregard of improbabilities in plot-texture, faults of 'charac 
terization', and want of taste. Here are a few of his phrases : 
'bad jokes and obscenities' (p. 2), 'extreme badness of pas 
sages' (p. 2), 'scenes which offend our feelings' (p. 4). 'dis 
gusting utterance' (p. 5), 'disgusting detail' (p. 7), 'blurr'd 
outline' (p. 1 3), and so on. It is all just like Tolstoy, who 
continually complains of Shakespeare's vulgarity. Tolstoy 
refers to his perplexity, his search for a resolution of the 
difficulty. In somewhat the same strain Bridges writes of 
Shakespearian tragedy that 'the pleasure attending our sur 
prise gratifies us, and our critical faculty is quieted by the 
reflection that there must be a solution, and that it is natural 
enough that we should not hit upon it at once* (p. 1 7). But 
both were finally sure of themselves. Shakespeare was con 
victed of numerous faults. No defence was forthcoming; and 
'realistic' criticism was loosed on the twentieth century. 
It is time to reverse such criticism. First, we must observe 



274 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

its place in the history of Shakespearian study. It is plainly 
a reaction from the extravagant praise and rhetorical appre 
ciation that so long and so loud sounded throughout the 
nineteenth century. Tolstoy quotes a passage from Swin 
burne : 

I am not minded to say much of Shakespeare's Arthur. There are one 
or two figures in the world of his work of which there are no words that 
would be fit or good to say. Another of these is Cordelia. The place they 
have in our lives and thoughts is not one for talk. The niche set apart for 
them to inhabit in our secret hearts is not penetrable by the lights and 
noises of common day. There are chapels in the cathedral of man's 
highest art, as in that of his inmost life, not made to be set open to the 
eyes and feet of the world. Love and Death and Memory keep charge 
for us in silence of some beloved names. It is the crowning glory of 
genius, the final miracle and transcendent gift of poetry that it can add 
to the number of these and engrave on the very heart of our remem 
brance fresh names and memories of its own creation. 

Such writing necessarily provokes a reaction. We should 
observe, too, how the critic here has said nothing whatsoever 
beyond what might have been understood from his opening 
sentences. But as the rest of the passage vitiates even those, 
which asserted that nothing was to be said about Arthur or 
Cordelia, the total resultant is one of sheer vacancy^ This is 
an extreme instance; but it is typical of a tendency in nine 
teenth-century commentary. Such 'romantic* critics praised 
extravagantly, but either ignored the necessity to think out 
their meanings or, in trying to do so, actually misunderstood 
themselves. They felt the Shakespearian grandeur; they 
understood, or thought they understood, the Shakespearian 
persons; and therefore they often assumed that the Shake 
spearian grandeur was almost wholly a matter of 'charac 
terization', and realistic description of human life. Tolstoy 
saw that they were wrong. And Tolstoy's violent attack on 
Shakespeare is primarily aroused, not by Shakespeare, but 
by the Shakespearian commentators. He refers to their 'long 
foggy erudite articles' (p. 458). The critics 'began to search 
Shakespeare for non-existent beauties, and to extol them' 
(p. 455): which is often true. The essay continually returns 
to the extravagant praise lavished on Shakespeare: praise 
which Tolstoy rightly saw to be either mere froth and senti 
ment, or definitely wrong. He can even afford Shakespeare 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 275 

himself a little praise : 

If people now wrote of Shakespeare that, for his time, he was a great 
writer, he managed verse well enough, was a clever actor and a good 
stage-manager, even if their valuation were inexact and somewhat exag 
gerated, provided it was moderate, people of the younger generations 
-might remain free from the Shakespearian influence. (p. 462) 

He can admit Shakespeare's 'masterly development of the 
scenes' (p. 455). But he cannot, and will not, admit Shake 
speare's eminence in characterization, in which, if we limit 
the term to Tolstoy's meaning, he is quite right; nor his 
eminence as a comprehensive and exact artist in a wide and 
detailed sense, in which he is, with Bridges, quite wrong. 
So Tolstoy quotes numerous examples of romantic panegyric. 
His conclusion is: 

And really the suggestion that Shakespeare's works are great works of 
genius, presenting the climax both of aesthetic and ethical perfection, has 
caused and is causing great injury to men. (p. 459) 

Misguided as he may be in his whole contention, Tolstoy 
is nevertheless correct in his feeling that the Shakespearian 
commentary he knew was often quite out of touch with the 
facts. 

These masses of doubtful commentary had, indeed, clearly 
influenced him. He looked in Shakespeare for the qualities 
most usually praised and found them non-existent. The 
actual fact, namely that Shakespeare's idolaters had con 
tinually passed over the poet's most important qualities, did 
not occur to him. It could hardly have done so. Where an 
English poet. Bridges, was baffled, we could hardly suppose 
Tolstoy to have succeeded. Both, writing about the same 
time, and similarly, though independently, reacting from 
romantic criticism, bring forward precisely the same objec 
tions: poor characterization, impossible events, exaggeration, 
vulgarity. Applying the hackneyed opinions to Shakespeare, 
they found that these qualities refused to fit: Tolstoy there 
fore rejects Shakespeare wholesale; Bridges those elements 
that repel him. 

His essay, Tolstoy tells us, 

is the result of repeated and strenuous efforts, extending over many year*, 
to harmonize my views with the opinions about Shakespeare accepted 
throughout the whole educated Christian world. (p. 393) 



276 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

Which shows how closely he was influenced by the com 
mentators. From the commentators he advanced to Shake 
speare, and found therein numerous extraordinary events 
which the commentators had done nothing to explain. His 
attack on Shakespeare is thus at root a healthy attempt to 
break free from the 'hypnotism', as he calls it, of romantic 
criticism. Lear's division of his kingdom he finds absurd. 
Gloucester's attempted suicide he finds absurd. He con 
cludes that 'Shakespeare's characters continually do and 
say what is not merely unnatural to them but quite 
unnecessary' (p. 43?)- Now King Lear is undoubtedly^ 
strange play. While we expect normal occurrences therein 
we shall certainly fail to receive its statement. Incongruity 
is everywhere. Lear's original action is incongruous, as 
Gloucester clearly and incisively observes; and the sequent 
action shows a whole world of incongruous events, bizarre, 
fantastic. At the climax, we have Gloucester's mock-suicide. 
The pattern of the whole must be grasped before we can 
understand the significance of the parts. Looking for normal 
human events, Tolstoy was baffled. We can hardly blame 
him, directed, as he was, by a century of European com 
mentary that stressed mainly Shakespeare's consummate 
skill in characterization, and tended to neglect his daring 
flights of symbolism, his bold strokes of allegory, his amaz 
ing power of bodying forth in terms of humanity, beasts, 
and elements a central dynamic idea whose ultimate mystery 
is by these expressions carried over to us but never bound 
rigidly to any law of 'characterization', 'realism', 'observa 
tion', or any other of those elements of art so often taken 
to be its only purpose and essence. Not that the Shake 
spearian imagination is purely subjective. Rather it fuses the 
power originating in the poet's soul wkh the appearances 
he observes. Fusing thus 'expression' with 'imitation', the 
poet accomplishes his 'creation': which process, the process 
of all poets, is always exquisitely balanced and harmonized 
in Shakespeare. Tolstoy, expecting rather the novelist's skill 
tending more towards 'observation' and 'imitation', is per 
plexed by Shakespeare. We may notice in passing that 
Tolstoy's own aesthetic theory in his essay 'What is Art?* 
concentrates rather on the inwardness of art, the 'feeling' 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 277 

of the artist. His novels strike us, however, primarily by their 
realism and objectivity. They appear real as life itself, in a 
sense that Shakespeare's work does not. But, whether in his 
early practice or later theory, Tolstoy presents a rock-like 
simplicity. And this grand simplicity in his soul is baffled 
and repelled by the infinite complexities of the Shakespearian 
art. He could never have liked Shakespeare, because of his 
intellectualism, his subtlety, and complexity. But without 
the misguided commentary to which he looked for help he 
would probably not have hated, and might even, within 
limits, have admired him. 

Thus King Lear is condemned for being unnatural .-'this 
unnatural scene* (p. 399), 'the struggle does not result from 
a natural course of events' (p. 420), 'equally unnatural is the 
secondary and very similar plot' (p. 420), 'full of unnatural 
occurrences' (p. 405). 'Unnatural' indeed. The whole play is 
concerned with this matter of 'nature* and 'unnatural* events. 
Often as Tolstoy insists on the unnatural occurrences in 
King Lear^ he does not do so so often, nor so powerfully, as 
the poet himself. As usual, the 'fault* observed by the critic 
is essential to the Shakespearian vision. 

Similarly, Bridges objects that Macbeth presents no clear 
motive for the protagonist's crime. For which he blames 
Shakespeare: 

If he had any plain psychological conception, we should eipect the 
drama to reveal it ; but his method here is not so much to reveal as to 
confuse. (p. 14) 

Again: 

Now this veiled confusion of motive is so well managed that it must be 
recognized as a device intended to escape observation. That the main 
conception of the play is magnificent is amply proved by the effects 
obtained ; but they are none the less procured by a deception, a liberty 
of treatment or a 'dishonesty 1 , which is purposely blurred. The natural 
ness is merely this, that in nature we cannot weigh or know all the 
motives or springs of action ; and therefore we are not shock'd at not 
being able to understand Macbeth; the difficulty indeed is one main 
source of our pleasure, and is intended to be so: but this is not nature, in 
the sense of being susceptible of the same analysis as that by which the 
assumptions of science would investigate nature. (p. 15) 

This passage calls for two criticisms. First I shall speak of 
Bridges' reference to Shakespeare's Intentions'. 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

We should observe here the recurrence of the 'intention' 
concept: 'intended to escape observation', 'purposely 
blurr'd', 'and is intended to be so*. This is ever the sign 
of false criticism, criticism which has forgotten the primary 
fact of artistic composition, namely, that it derives not from 
'consciousness' nor 'unconsciousness' in the usual sense, but 
rather from a third mode, neither the one nor the other, for 
which we have no proper word. We may, of course, talk 
metaphorically of the 'purpose', meaning the thought- 
direction, of the art-form itself; or the 'purpose* of one part, 
as contributing this or that to the whole; but never, except 
in definitely psychological analysis of the poet himself, of 
the 'intention' or 'purpose* in the poet's mind as distinct 
from or modifying the thing intended or purposed. There 
fore to assert here that such and such an effect is 'intended 
to escape observation' means nothing relevant whatsoever. 
It cannot quite mean that such a power to elude observation 
is the proper and natural purpose of such an effect, since 
then there could scarcely be any complaint. Rather Bridges 
means that the poet 'intended' this. And how, indeed, can 
anyone know such a thing? And what difference does it 
make if we do? In exactly the same way Tolstoy, misled by 
the usual cliches of Shakespearian commentary, flounders 
into 'intentions': 

Such is the introduction. Not to speak of the vulgarity of these words of 
Gloucester, they are also out of place in the mouth of a man whom it is 
intended to represent as a noble character. (p. 397) 

How do we know this? Why should Gloucester be 'intended* 
to be a noble character? Therefore, continues Tolstoy, 

. . . these words of Gloucester's at the very beginning of the piece, were 
merely for the purpose of informing the public in an amusing way of the 
fact that Gloucester has a legitimate and an illegitimate son. 

(P- 398) 

'Purpose'. So, too, Bridges often thinks he has found 
Shakespeare's 'purpose* of pleasing a vulgar audience. Many 
writers have likewise played games with Shakespeare's 
'intentions*. The attempt is quite unnecessary, success always 
impossible, and, if achieved, would be necessarily irrelevant 
if not meaningless. Next I shall remark on another aspect 
of Bridges' criticism of Macbeth. 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 279 

The matter of Macbeth's temptation, it is argued, is not 
treated scientifically. Bridges realizes that we cannot say it 
is 'unnatural' as depicted by the poet, since 'in nature we 
cannot weigh or know all the motives or springs of action'. 
All we can say is, that it 'is not nature, in the sense of being 
susceptible of the same analysis as that by which the assump 
tions of science would investigate nature*. That is, presum 
ably, the Macbeth problem is less easily analysed than a real 
human problem of the same kind. Which is partly true, since 
a real problem would present, probably, a deceptive appear 
ance of simplicity. But motive is always vague, a complex 
woven of conscious desire, semi-conscious promptings, 
opportunity, and, in addition, certain unknown quantities 
which any analysis will falsify. Macbeth penetrates below the 
veils of 'causality* and 'intention', and all such surface con 
cepts by which we attempt to simplify the complicated 
interactions of appearances. It is true that *we cannot weigh 
or know all the motives or springs of action. . /. With 
consummate art the poet has forced us to pierce below such 
ready assurances as we habitually use; has forced us to forgo 
the comfortable 'assumptions of science'. And this very 
vagueness, irrationality, and mystery that baffles Bridges in 
the first act vitalizes the whole play, reiterated and reinforced 
by numerous events, actions, speeches, and metaphors 
throughout. The play presents a vision of essential evil in 
all its irrationality. Again, the critic has attacked the poet 
for his profundity, regarding as an ugly blot the very sig 
nature of his genius. 

There is no question of blame. Writing when he did, 
Bridges could not be expected to read the deeper meanings 
in Shakespeare. His very complaints, like Tolstoy's, are a 
step towards understanding. Tolstoy and Bridges suffered 
from clear thinking: which differentiates them from their 
predecessors. It is for us to make a further advance. The 
analytic critic of Shakespeare will henceforth know that he 
must first grasp the vitalizing ideas behind the phenomena 
of the plays : otherwise his criticism will be vapid. 

In the same way Bridges was insensitive to the vitalizing 
idea in Measure for Measure, 'The pardon of Angelo', he 
says, 'will hardly find an advocate 1 (p. 7). And yet the play 



28O TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

imperatively demands such a conclusion, as certainly as the 
Parable of the Prodigal Son. The play is soaked in Christian 
ethics from start to finish, as I have shown in my detailed 
analysis. Measure for Measure presents a kind of thesis. It has 
a very clear ethical plan. But the poet's compressed dramatic 
method has continually baffled critics who look only for 
'characterization', though the characterization, when under 
stood in terms of the plot, is here probably more careful 
and exact than elsewhere in Shakespeare. All Bridges' 
objections to Angelo are quite meaningless once the 
pattern is grasped. He even makes definitely false state 
ments, induced by the wrong focus of his critical vision. 
Angelo, he says, is not a 'passionate* man: 'there is no 
passion in his calculating lust' (p. 1 1). Again: 

His temperament does not, I think, tally with the notion of the sudden 
outburst of an uncontrollable animal instinct which had been artificially 
repressed. (P- ") 

Let us quote Shakespeare: 

What, do I love her, 
That I desire to hear her speak again, 
And feast upon her eves? What is't I dream on ? 
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, 
With saints dost 'bait thy hook ! Most dangerous 
Is that temptation that doth goad us on 
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet, 
With all her double vigour, art and nature. 
Once stir my temper ; but this virtuous maid 
Subdues me quite. Ever till now, 
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how. 

(Measure for Measure, u. ii. 177) 

And yet, 'there is no passion in his calculating lust 1 . Again : 

When I would pray and think, I think and pray 

To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words ; 

Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, 

Anchors on Isabel : Heaven in my mouth, 

As if I did but only chew his name ; 

And in my heart the strong and swelling evil 

Of my conception. (". iv. i) 

Is this not passion? But his final forgiveness is inevitable. 
The critic who does not like the last act of Measure for 
Measure will not be easily convinced by argument. He has 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 28l 

so completely missed the whole point of the play. What are 
we to say to some one who returns from a performance of 
King Lear complaining that for his part he could see nothing 
funny in the conclusion? The problem is the same. No 
Shakespearian play will reveal its riches to anyone who 
refuses first to accept, and try to understand, it, fitting all 
minor discrepancies in with the main pattern, building the 
unity in his own mind which the poet has built on paper. 
There will then be little to complain of. But it is curious 
that the one play of Shakespeare which concentrates most 
on 'character' and ethical principles generally should be the 
one most usually attacked on these grounds. 

Both Tolstoy and Bridges attack mainly Shakespeare's 
characterization. Their respective remarks on King Lear, 
Macbeth, and Measure for Measure are typical. It is clear, 
moreover, that they in each instance failed to see, I will not 
say what the poet 'intended', but what the work of art itself 
intends. They inspect as through a glass wrongly focused 
and see only a blurry chaos; they then proceed to assert 
that this chaos was intended' by the poet. 

Although I have suggested the profound psychology that 
underlies the strangeness of Macbeth^ there is clearly a sense 
in which Shakespeare's persons do not appear as *naturaP 
as Tolstoy's. We have at least the unusual pleasure of recog 
nizing that the critic can here himself produce what he finds 
lacking in the subject of his hostility. Many very strange, 
all but impossible, things happen in Shakespeare, Tolstoy 
concentrates chiefly on King Lear which is very refreshing 
since, for some reason, King Lear has never properly stood 
the brunt of the ignorant attacks levelled from time to time 
on Measure for Measure -, Timon of Athens , Trot/us andCressida, 
and Hamlet\ and surely it is as extraordinary as any. 

Then, curiously enough, to the very spot on the open heath where he is 
comes his father, blind Gloucester, led by an old man, and he too talks 
about the perversities of fate in that curious Shakespearian language. . . 

(p. 409) 

A remarkable coincidence. No one can deny that this is a 
purely arbitrary stroke of art or artificiality. The play is 
crammed with them. There is 'Gloucester's jump' as Tolstoy 
calls it usually passed over by commentators as a perfectly 



282 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

natural event. As Tolstoy points out, the whole matter of 
EdmuncTs plot and Gloucester's rejection of Edgar is 
'unnatural'. Moreover, the similarity between plot and sub 
plot is itself surely a coincidence: 

The fact that the relation of Lear to his daughters is just the same as that 

of Gloucester to his sons, makes one feel even more strongly that they 

are both arbitrarily invented and do not flow from the characters or the 

natural course of events. (p- 4 2 ) 

This is undeniable. Nor is all this solely due to the necessities 

of dramatic art. Tolstoy quotes from the old play, Leir, to 

show how it is better than Shakespeare's in this respect. He 

makes his point clearly, and is, from his own view of art, 

here, however, irrelevant, perfectly correct. Similarly, he 

shows how the original tale of Othello has been, as it were, 

deliberately made more unnatural by Shakespeare. He writes 

of lago's motives very much as Bridges of Macbeth's : 

There are many motives, but they are all vague; in the romance there 
is one motive and it is simple and clear. (p. 43 

Tolstoy and Bridges are ever in close agreement. 

Bridges likewise observes Shakespeare's habit of altering 
the clear reasons for things which he finds in his 'source* : 

For instance, in TAe Merchant of Venice, the love of Antonio for 
Bassanio, which in the absence of explanation appears romantic, is 
merely carried over without its motive from the old story, in which 
Antonio is Bassanio's godfather, and adopts him and loves him as his 
own son. Again, Antonio's melancholy with which Shakespeare opens 
his play so well, using it as an interesting attraction and another 
romantic trait very valuable as preparation for his conduct is 
developed from a hint in the novel, where Antonio is sad on account of 
Bassanio's ill-successes. And this is an example of the greater interest 
of such a mood when unaccounted for, since in the original story it is 
of no special value. (p- 20) 

Bridges is often, as here, on the point of seeing the solution : 
namely, that we must accept Shakespeare's people before 
we understand them; and that, if we do this, we find our 
understanding not only of them, but of actual life, immeasur 
ably enriched. Again : 

It would seem from such instances that Shakespeare sometimes judged 
conduct to be dramatically more effective when not adequately motived. 
In The Winter*! Tab the jealousy of Leontes is senseless, whereas in 
the original story an adequate motive is developed. (p. 21) 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 283 

But Othello was altogether too much for Bridges, as for 
Tolstoy, who, however, thought it not the best but the 'least 
bad' (p. 429) of Shakespeare's plays. Both critics agree that 
the play is thoroughly weak in mechanism. *The whole thing 
is impossible 1 (p. 23), says Bridges. It induces in him 
'exasperation* : 

. . . and seeing how cleverly everything is calculated to this effect, I con 
clude that it was Shakespeare's intention, and that what so hurts me was 
only a pleasurable excitement to his audience, whose gratification was 
relied on to lull their criticism. (p. 24) 

Exactly: 'gratification' must 'lull' our 'criticism' before we 
stand any chance of understanding. Certainly, Othello wit 
nesses a sequence of amazing improbabilities; but if they 
appear harsher than elsewhere as they do to Bridges 
this is because the persons are more clearly differentiated 
and realized as individuals distinct from their world than 
are those in King Lear or Macbeth. Nor is there here the 
usual power of dominating atmosphere to force our too un 
willing 'suspension of disbelief. The 'better* Shakespeare's 
'characterization', the cruder his plot may sometimes appear. 

I shall now attempt a clarification. If my arguments 
seem to lead to complexity and excessive intellectualizatbn, 
I reply that such qualities are forced by Tolstoy's attack. 
It would be easy enough to defend Shakespeare with the 
same dogmatic simplicity as Tolstoy uses: but that would 
scarcely resolve our difficulty. 

Tolstoy himself will help us : 

That a great mastery in the presentation of character is attriboted to 
Shakespeare arises from his really possessing a peculiarity which, when 
helped out by the pky of good actors, may appear to superficial observers 
to be a capacity to manage scenes in which a movement of feeling is ex 
pressed. However arbitrary the positions in which he puts his characters, 
however unnatural to them the language he makes them speak, however 
lacking in individuality they may be, the movement of feeling itself, its 
increase and change and the combination of many contrary feelings, arc 
often expressed correctly and powerfully in some of Shakespeare's scenes. 

(P-435) 

That is valuable. Shakespeare's power is not merely repre 
sentative. He does not show us people acting or speaking 
as people ordinarily do. For one thing, his persons usually 



284 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

speak blank verse: which would be intolerable in real life. 
To understand Shakespeare, one must make this original 
acceptance: to believe, first, in people who speak poetry; 
thence in human actions which subserve a poetic purpose; 
and, finally, in strange effects in nature which harmonize 
with the persons and their acts; the whole building a massive 
statement which, if accepted in its entirety, induces a pro 
found experience in the reader or spectator. Tolstoy, con 
centrating here on 'characters', sees that a single person in 
the drama may well express variations of feeling, complex 
and contradicting emotions. This is just what poetry can do 
better than prose. In this way the poetic dramatist strips the 
appearance from human affairs, laying bear the essence. Into 
that naked world of burning thought and quick-changing 
emotion, that psychic world half-known to ourselves and 
carefully obscured from our neighbour, to that world the 
poet directs our experiencing minds. What Tolstoy observes 
in single persons is, however, even more true of the whole 
Shakespearian art-form. The thoughts and emotions of the 
protagonist are usually, in Shakespeare's greater plays, the 
substance not only of him, but of his world. He is, indeed, 
one with his world. He speaks unnaturally, perhaps: his 
world is usually, in varied ways, unnatural. And Tolstoy sees 
that 'the movement of feeling* is, in a sense, true, though the 
language be unnatural : in the same way, if we have regard to 
the whole art-form, 'the movement of feeling' is true, though 
the events be unnatural. Again, the Shakespearian world is 
not the world we habitually see. But it is the world we 
experience: the poignant world of primal feeling, violent 
subterranean life, and wayward passionate thought, con 
trolled, denied, hidden often, then up-gushing to surprise 
ourselves; the inner world we experience, the world we live 
and fear, but not the world we normally see; nor the world 
we think we understand. 

Therefore Hamlet, as Tolstoy will tell us, is no true 
'character*. He cannot be. * Character' in the ethical sense 
is the result of co-ordinating and controlling varied impulses. 
Men do this in different ways, expressing some, repressing 
others. Hence they present different 'characters' to the world, 
and thus we have 'character' in its literary sense. The essence 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

of objective ^'characterization* is 'differentiation'; and dif 
ferentiation involves limitation. If the Character' be not 
properly limited and defined, he is the less precisely drawn 
as a 'character 1 . In actual life we do well to hide and repress 
certain instincts. But such dangerous impulses may be often 
the very substance of art. Indeed, there is clearly a close 
relation between repressed emotions or thoughts and artistic 
expression : hence the literary art-form is usually compact of 
such impulses. These are often split into different 'charac 
ters' : the more strictly each is limited and defined the less 
universally poetic he will be as a unit, and the more perfect 
as a 'character*. But the quintessentially poetic figure may 
have a full share of these impulses. Hamlet is such a figure. 
He is more than protagonist: he is a play in himself. He 
expresses many impulses, good and evil, and thus is one of 
Shakespeare's most universal single creations. As men are 
not different in the instincts and desires they possess, but 
only in those they express, the deeper we go in human under 
standing, the less ultimate meaning we must attribute to 
differences of character between man and man ; and if much 
of the poetry of life is to be confined in one person, as it is 
in Hamlet, his 'character' will automatically cease to exist. 
So madness, or rather frenzied sleep, disturbs Ahab, in Moby 
Dicky so that he rises from his bed. Melville writes : 

This latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in skcp, 
being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at 
other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously 
sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, 
for the time, it was no longer an integral. (Mo&y Dick t xliv) 

The word 'characterizing* is significant. Hence Hamlet has 
no 'character', as Tolstoy saw: 

But as it is accepted that Shakespeare, the genius, could v> rite nothing 
bad, learned men devote all the power of their minds to discovering extra 
ordinary beauties in what is an obvious and glaring defect particularly 
obvious in Hamkt namely, that the chief person of the play has no char 
acter at all. And lo and behold, profound critics announce that in this 
drama, in the person of Hamlet, is most powerfully presented a perfectly 
new and profound character, consisting in this, that the person has no 
character; and that in this absence of character lies an achievement of 
genius the creation of a profound character ! And having decided this, 
the learned critics write volumes upon volumes, until the laudations and 



286 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

explanations of the grandeur and importance of depicting the character 
of a man without a character fill whole libraries. (p. 434) 

Exactly. Tolstoy sees the truth. But there is more to say. 

In Shakespeare it is usual to find what is first a recurrent 
idea or image, or set of images, later expanded into a whole 
play. The same happens with poetic style in general. The 
whole business of poetic drama is to present persons speaking 
the soul-language of poetry, but otherwise more or less 
correspondent with real life. We are shown a visionary life 
where humanity ceases to be comparatively dumb. Art always 
discloses the inner flame of reality: 

Transparent Helena ! Nature shows art, 

That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart. 

(A Midsummer-Night *s Dream > 11. ii. 104) 

This is a matter of style, irrespective of plot. But, as though 
this were not enough, in Shakespeare's greater tragedies the 
same process is reflected in the plot too. The hero, or his 
world, suffers a rough tearing away of all superficial cover 
ings, leaving the spirit exposed: thus there is created an 
opportunity by which the protagonist (in Hamlet} or his 
whole world (in Macbeth} becomes, as it were, doubly 
poetic. So the process by which an image may develop 
mto a play is paralleled by this process by which poetry 
itself which is largely a revelation of 'soul' or 'spirit* 
is expanded into plots where the persons endure, in 
their actuality, a similar unique disclosure. In this sense, 
too, Hamlet is quintessentially poetic. Therefore we may 
say that even if he had a 'character* before the action, events 
especially the sepulchral revelation of the Ghost so tear 
the superficial coverings of life from his eyes; tear also the 
superficial consciousness from his mind; that they leave him 
a naked soul, confronting the naked soul of mankind. And 
in this consists his especially intense tragic poetry. Similarly 
in Julius Caesar and Macbeth reality is ript open and naked 
spirit exposed, flaring its fires through Rome, glaring its 
hideous torment in Scotland. Or in King Lear, deceptive 
appearance is agonizingly withdrawn, a deceptive conscious 
ness dethroned, and Lear himself reaches self-knowledge 
through the fantastic leaping devils of lunacy, knowledge 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK. ON SHAKESPEARE 287 

of his own soul. In all these plays there is a violent, extrava 
gant, lurid spirit-world of some sort exposed; and in Timon 
of 'Athens , too, the tinsel glitter of civilization and humanism 
is withdrawn, leaving mankind naked to the imprecations 
of the naked Timon. 

All these plays present a vision which deliberately looks 
deeper than 'character' even in the more poetic sense by 
which we speak of the 'characters' in Henry IV \ deeper than 
character or any realistic experience. And we must note that 
in so far as the artist plumbs thus deep in his soundings, 
he tends to create sombre plays, tragic plays, plays instinct 
with elements black, fearful, evil, and spirits of nightmare 
fantasy. The protagonist will thus often be mad. Psycho 
logically, we may say that the artist is liberating the deeper 
instincts most habitually unrecognized and repressed. But 
such instincts may yet again be blended with brighter 
essences and create again new beauty as profound as these 
yet less terrible; and such art will immediately appear more 
realistic. Beyond a certain point, evil, being hostile to life 
and therefore unnatural, must, in any extreme vision, have 
an extraordinary and unnatural expression; whereas what 
is good for life is, at an extreme, necessarily more life-like. 
Thus Antony and Cleopatra, blending tragedy with romance, 
is more nearly correspondent to actual affairs than the sombre 
plays: its theme is love, and the love-instinct is good; and 
what is most good tends to be most life-like, and needs no 
violent plot and symbolism such as we find in Macbeth or 
Hamlet. But such life-likeness is far from photographic: it 
is still intensely poetic, containing all elements exposed in 
those sombre statements, yet mating them afresh to human 
and natural actuality in terms of emotional and intellectual 
language far from any normal speech. Thus numerous 
variations are played on 'characterization* in Shakespeare. 
In Othello and Coriolanus the persons are very firmly dif 
ferentiated and fairly 'natural'; in Timon of Athens^ firmly 
differentiated but scarcely 'natural' in the usual sense; in 
Antony and Cleopatra 'natural* but not very solidly differen 
tiated; in King Lear, and still more in Macbeth^ often both 
'unnatural* (in the sense of 'remarkable* or 'strange 1 ) and 
slightly differentiated. But in all these greater plays the whole 



288 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK. ON SHAKESPEARE 

vision is primary: human realism, sometimes natural, some 
times unnatural, only exists in vassalage to this poetic vision. 
And so Hamlet especially, who is formed as a person of the 
visionary substance which vitalizes the greater tragedies, has 
no 'character*. He is more than 'literary': he is like a real 
person with a real person's potentiality for all things, in 
which he resembles Cleopatra. The persons surrounding 
him are nearer 'characters' in the literary sense: they are well 
differentiated. Hamlet is universal. In him we recognize 
ourselves, not our acquaintances. Possessing all characters, 
he possesses none. 

It is, indeed, not surprising that Tolstoy should have 
found fault with Shakespeare's 'characterization'. In his 
sense, it clearly does not exist: 

If the characters utter whatever comes to hand and as it comes to hand 
and all in one and the same way as in Shakespeare, even the effect of 
gesture is lost; and therefore whatever blind worshippers of Shakespeare 
may say, Shakespeare does not show us characters. (p. 424) 

Tolstoy would have all the persons speak differently, accord 
ing to their 'characters'. But Shakespeare's persons make 
utterance from a height where all men speak alike: the height 
of universal experience, refracted often in human terms, 
voiceless save by poetry. 

Ill 

I shall next show more clearly how both Tolstoy and 
Bridges have failed to appreciate Shakespeare primarily 
through neglect of his imaginative and symbolic effects, due 
to the excessive emphasis placed on Shakespeare's charac 
terization throughout nineteenth-century commentary. 

It is strange that Shakespeare's most subtle symbolic 
effects should expose him to charges of vulgarity and gross- 
ness. Both critics find Shakespeare guilty of excessive vul 
garity and exaggeration. For example, Bridges writes: 

And this provides an ample account of the next fault that offends my 
feelings, that is what may be called brutality, which, though often 
mingled with the indelicacy already spoken of, must be distinguished 
from it. (p. 4) 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 289 

He remarks on 'the extravagant grossness of Leontes' lan 
guage to Hermione*, and asserts that 'the coarse terms in 
which Claudio repudiates Hero enfeeble the plot of Much 
Ado About Nothing*. I have already sufficiently indicated how 
the horrors of sex-loathing are necessary to the patterning 
of many plays; indeed often, as in Troilus and Cressida and 
Hamlet^ are primary themes. It is the same with Leontes. 
And, as for Much Ado About Nothing^ Claudio 's behaviour 
very considerably modifies our idea of Claudio as a person 
in the play. It is dramatically dynamic. Probably the critic 
means that Claudio's words are out of place in a person 
whom it is 'intended' to represent as a gentleman. So Bridges 
finds Shakespeare's dialogue 'pitched in extravagant tones' 
(p. 6). And Tolstoy says the same: 

In Shakespeare everything is exaggerated : the actions are exaggerated, so 
are their consequences, the speeches of the characters are exaggerated, 
and therefore at every step the possibility of artistic impression is infringed. 

(P- 438) 

It will be obvious that this and all the complaints about 
characterization are due to a single cause: a failure to focus 
imaginatively the proper poetic pattern to be inspected. Most 
of the difficulties are swiftly resolved by any competent 
imaginative interpretation. 

Bridges is repelled by a speech in The Tempest: 

... in proximity to Prosperous romantic cell there is a ^filthy-mantled 
pool* which is the occasion of a disgusting utterance in the mouth of the 
delicate Ariel. (p. 5) 

Ariel's remark as to how the pool 'o'erstunk* the feet of his 
victims may seem unpleasant. Possibly, it does not suit Ariel. 
I could say that I thought it harmless, but that would be 
merely my own opinion. What does matter, however, is this: 
we should be more ready to receive the poet's message. 
'Characterization* may not here be primary. There may be 
something else we ought to consider. The * filthy-mantled 
pool* is indeed symbolically of great importance : a fitting 
punishment for the coarseness^ the lust and villainy and 
greed, of the delinquents. Just as FalstarT is tipped into the 
Thames mud and later has his fat body tormented by gnomes 
and fairies, these suggesting that spiritual element his lust 



29O TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

has wronged, so Caliban and Trinculo and Stephano are 
likewise chased and punished by Ariel and Prosperous spirits, 
and left in a bog. And in Ariel's words we have a reminder 
that their filthy punishment is to be related to their own 
uncleanness, their essential earthiness and lack of spirit- 
beauty. His phrase is appropriately vivid.^ Now clearly, 
whether or not Bridges would have been satisfied with this 
explanation, he shows no signs that he has even considered 
it. Nor could we expect him to have done so. 

The poet's vision is thus often wronged by a critical 
intelligence which does not see the vitalizing plan and pur 
pose beating in the incidents and persons, without some 
sympathy with which those incidents and persons themselves 
appear unreal and often vulgar. Bridges necessarily finds 
The Winter's Tak impossible. Clearly, his method could not 
begin to understand it. For what scheme of Characterization' 
could ever account for Hermione's extraordinary behaviour ? 
It is amusing to see the realistic critical intelligence at work 
on a poet's vision of immortality as though it were a news 
paper account of a street event. Nor is it surprising that 
'tempests 1 , too, come under the shadow of this criticism: 

And how easy it would have been to have provided a more reasonable 
ground for Othello's jealousy. If in the break of the second act his vessel 
had been delay'd a week by the storm, those days of anxiety and officious 
consolation would have given the needed opportunity, and the time- 
contradictions might also have been avoided. (p. 23) 

How easy, indeed. And how easy to accept the play as it is 
without making dream pictures of what it might be. And 
what if the tempest is here far more important than any 
'reasonable' grounds for jealousy, or time-contradictions? 
The Othello tempest is presented as powerless to hurt or 
delay the lovers: that is its place in Othello. It is to be con 
trasted with the tempests of passion that follow. By the time 
he came to Othello the poet might at least be allowed to put 
his tempest where and how he chose. He had surely had 
enough practice by then. Why attempt to rewrite the drama 
and alter the symbolic effects? Such is the method of false 
criticism. 

Tolstoy also comes up against tempests. There is a tempest 
in King Lear as well as in Othello and the other plays; and 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 291 

this tempest worried Tolstoy. It was a 'coarse embellish 
ment.' He writes : 

Act III begins with thunder, lightning, and storm a special kind of 
storm such as there never was before, as one of the characters in the play 
says. (p. 405) 

Again, 

Lear walks about the heath and utters words intended to express despair : 
he wishes the winds to blow so hard that they (the winds) should crack 
their cheeks, and that the rain should drench everything, and that the 
lightning should singe his white head and thunder strike the earth flat and 
destroy all the germs 'that make ingrateful man*. The Fool keeps uttering 
yet more senseless words. Kent enters. Lear says that, for some reason, in 
this storm all criminals shall be discovered and exposed. Kent, still not 
recognized by Lear, persuades Lear to take shelter in a hovel. The Fool 
thereupon utters a prophecy quite unrelated to the situation, and they all 
go off. (p. 405) 

It is easy to sneer at Tolstoy's lack of insight. But can the 
'characterization* school of criticism answer Tolstoy's ob 
jections here or elsewhere ? And can any school of criticism 
defend the Fool's soliloquy? It is strange that the disinte 
gration of Shakespeare has paid such respectful disregard 
to King Lear. It certainly is not the least 'unnatural* or the 
plays. Tolstoy found the language quite untrue to human 
nature : 

No real people could speak, or could have spoken, as Lear does 
saying that, *I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb' if Regan did 
not receive him, or telling the winds to *crack your cheeks', or bidding 
*the wind blow the earth into the sea', or 'swell the curled waters *bove 

the main', as the Gentleman describes what Lear said to the storm 

(P- 423} 

Observe how Tolstoy continually returns to the tempest. 
His powerful mind penetrates to the heart of his subject: 
his conclusions may be wrong, but his error is worth more 
than most critics' truth- Again: 

Instead of the unnatural expulsion of Lear during a tempest and his 
roaming about the heath, in the old play Lcir with Perillus during their 
journey to France very naturally come to the last degree of want 

(P- 427) 

Shakespeare's imaginative effects repelled and worried 
Tolstoy, as they should repel and worry any clear-thinking 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK. ON SHAKESPEARE 

critic who has not properly understood their nature: 

The artificiality of the positions, which do not arise from a natural course 
of events and from the characters of the people engaged, and their incom 
patibility with the period and the place, is further increased by the coarse 
embellishments Shakespeare continually makes use of in passages meant 
to be specially touching. The extraordinary storm during which Lear 
roams about the heath, or the weeds which for some reason he puts on 
his head, as Ophelia does in Hamlet, or Edgar's attire all these effects, 
far from strengthening the impression, produce a contrary effect. 



Again Tolstoy selects for attack matters of primary impor 
tance. For Lear's crown of flowers holds a deep significance. 
It is the crown of his purgatory. It is a symbol with many 
relations. It touches the crown of thorns of the Crucifixion. 
And yet its flower-sweetness also suggests and prepares us 
for the child-like innocency of Lear's latter state, when he 
is reunited in love with Cordelia. In this it resembles 
Ophelia's crown of flowers. It is 'fantastic' witness Capell's 
direction: 'Enter Lear fantastically dressed with wild 
flowers'. Or, as Tolstoy puts it, 'just then, Lear enters, for 
some reason all covered with wild flowers* (p. 413). This, 
with the crown described by Cordelia, suggests the 'fan 
tastic' madness that he has endured, and also the wild- 
simple nature which he reaches after the loss of his kingship, 
leaving civilization for love and nature's simplicity. And then 
again, the crown reminds us of Cleopatra's diadem of love, 
or Cassius* wreath, suggesting victory through and in suf 
fering and tragedy. So various may be the content of a 
symbol; so exquisite is the Shakespearian imagination. 
Similarly we could write on Ophelia's crown, or Edgar's 
nakedness. But all this is missed by the specialists in 
'characterization'. 

In the same way the fine 'sun' and 'moon* symbolism of 
Othello was missed by Tolstoy: 

A man who is preparing to murder some one he loves cannot utter such 
phrases, and still less after the murder can he say that the sun and moon 
ought now to be eclipsed and the globe to yawn, nor can he, whatever 
kind of a nigger he may be, address devils, inviting them to roast him in 
sulphur, and -so forth. (p. 430) 

And here, again, Tolstoy is worrying at a truth. Othello's 
language is decorative, excessively so; and we cannot under- 



TOLSTOY f S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 293 

stand the play properly without attending to this quality. 
Othello himself is compact of romance, highly-coloured, 
rich, exotic; and his words are in a style unique in Shake 
speare. They often border on the sentimental, luxuriating 
in emotion : 

If he really suffers from grief and remorse then, when intending to kill 
himself, he would not utter phrases about his own services, about a pearl, 
about his eyes dropping tears 'as fast as the Arabia* trees their mfJicim*! 
gum', and still less could he talk about the way a Turk scolded a Venetian, 
and how */Aw' he punished him for it. (p. 430) 

There is justice in Tolstoy's complaint. But he misses the 
power of Shakespeare's symbols, the *sun* and 'moon*, whose 
light shines or dims in Shakespeare according to love's 
fortunes on earth, he misses the power of the Jewel' in 
Shakespeare's love-poetry, and the fine importance always 
given to warrior-service, such as Othello's, throughout the 
plays. These, the imaginative effects and what Professor 
Barker Fairley has well called the 'philosophic invariables', 
are not properly received. But Tolstoy and Bridges both 
continually worry at the important, the significant, points; 
irritated by them, as though semi-consciously aware of the 
true Shakespearian excellences, yet powerless to focus their 
beauty. 

So Shakespeare is put down as a writer pandering to vulgar 
tastes : 

'But one must not forget the times in which Shakespeare wrote', say his 
belauders. 'It was a time of cruel and coarse manners, a time of the then 
fashionable euphuism, that is, an artificial manner of speech a time of 
forms of life strange to us, and therefore to judge Shakespeare one must 
keep in view the times when he wrote.' (p. 438) 

So writes Tolstoy, here stating admirably the main thesis 
advanced by Bridges, and followed by modern commentary. 
Failing to find any inherent unity in the art-form, the critic 
has to overstep the limit of aesthetic commentary and try 
to account for the artistic essence in terms of its 'causes', 
its 'Circumstances', its supposed inartistic 'purposes'. Thus 
our modern 'realistic* criticism of Shakespeare came into 
being: aptly, it soon developed into disintegration, such 
pseudo-realism and pseudo-scholarship, if carried far, being 
essentially disintegrating and destructive. 



294 TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

IV 

Tolstoy indicts Shakespeare on two main charges. First, 
his poor characterization and unnatural effects generally; 
and, second, his lack of the religious essence. Granted the 
Shakespeare given to him by the commentators, we cannot 
easily blame him. I have answered the charge against 
'characterization*. I have already partly answered Tolstoy's 
second point; but I offer a few more remarks thereon. 

Following the commentators, Tolstoy finds Shakespeare's 
ethic intolerable. He quotes Gervinus at length and Brandes, 
Both these consider themselves able to say just what Shake 
speare thought wrong and what he thought right. Their 
conclusions appear rash indeed. Tolstoy, it seems, thought 
otherwise: 

. . . And any one who reads attentively the works of Shakespeare cannot 
but acknowledge that the attribution of this view of life to Shakespeare 
by those who praise him is perfectly correct. (p. 445) 

Elsewhere, however, Tolstoy complains that Shakespeare's 
work shows no coherent thought at all. Indeed, he quite fails 
to find any sort of satisfactory religion, philosophy, or any 
unity whatsoever, in the Shakespearian universe: *The 
characters utter whatever comes to hand and as it comes 
to hand* (p. 424). We have a fine emphasis on the importance 
of religion to the drama : 

Art, especially dramatic art which demands for its realization extensive 
preparations, expenditure, and labour, was always religious, that is to say, 
its object was to evoke in man a clearer conception of that relation of 
man to God attained at the time by the advanced members of the society 
in which the art was produced. 

So it should be by the nature of the matter, and so it always had been 
among all nations : among the Egyptians, Hindus, Chinese, and Greeks 
from the earliest time that we have knowledge of the life of man. . . . 

(P- 45*) 

Tolstoy observes how the decline of the Miracle and Morality 
plays synchronized with the rediscovery of Greek models, 
which were favoured by dramatists who should have worked 
out for themselves a new Christian drama; and how after 
wards eighteenth-century writers in Germany, becoming 
wearied by the French classical school, yet still admiring the 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 295 

Greek tragedians, looked for something of the same sort 
to copy: 

These men, not understanding that the sufferings and strife of their heroes 
had a religious significance for the Greeks, imagined that it was only 
necessary to reject the inconvenient kw of the three Unities, and without 
containing any religious element corresponding to the beliefs of their own 
time, the representations of various incidents in the lives of historic per 
sonages and of strong human passions in general would afford a sufficient 
basis for the drama. (p. 454) 

Goethe praised Shakespeare. His work satisfied the demands 
of the moment. Shakespearian idolatry was born in Germany, 
and quickly overspread Europe. Such is Tolstoy's account. 
So Shakespeare was praised for work from a religious point 
of view quite chaotic: 

To make their praise of the whole of Shakespeare more convincing they 
composed an aesthetic theory, according to which a definite religious 
view of life is not at all necessary for the creation of works of art in general, 
or for the drama in particular. (p. 45^) 

How far Tolstoy is exactly right in his historical details need 
not concern us. But his main position is clear enough. He 
cannot accept as a great poet a writer who has no religious 
centre, background, or framework for his art. 

'Religion* is a vague term, but definition is here hardly 
necessary. Tolstoy uses it in a wide sense and we may do 
the same, taking its content to range from an exact orthodoxy 
to an individual's philosophy of life. And, indeed, Shake 
speare presents us very definitely with just such a variable 
religion-philosophy compound as Tolstoy seems to require. 
He is an admirable example of the exact kind of writer 
Tolstoy in theory admired : 

By *the jeligious essence of art', I reply, I mean not an external inculca 
tion of any religious truth in artistic guise, and not an allegorical repre 
sentation of those truths, but the expression of a definite view of life 
corresponding to the highest religious understanding of a given period : 
an outlook which, serving as the impelling motive for the composition of 
the drama, permeates the whole work though the author is unconscious 
of it. So it has always been with true art, and so it is with every true 
artist in general and with dramatists especially. Hence, as happened when 
the drama was a serious thing, and as should be according to the essence 
of the matter, he alone can write a drama who has something to say to 
men something highly important for them about man's relation to 
God, to the universe, to all that is infinite and unending, (p. 457) 



296 TOLSTOYS ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 

This is the true Shakespeare that eluded Tolstoy; the 
Shakespeare that emerges from attention to his imaginative 

Dualities, Here is the Shakespeare Tolstoy rightly derived 
rom the would-be laudatory commentators : 

But when, thanks to the German theories about objective art, an idea 
had been established that, for drama, this is not wanted at all, then a 
writer like Shakespeare who in his own soul had not formed religious 
convictions corresponding to his period, and who had even no convictions 
at all, but piled up in his plays all possible events, horrors, fooleries, 
discussions, and effects, could evidently be accepted as the greatest of 
dramatic geniuses. (p. 457) 

Tolstoy's attack forcibly insists on a truth that we must 
realize in our study of Shakespeare. It is essential with such 
a writer to understand that axis on which his work revolves : 
otherwise we necessarily find chaos. And the great writer, 
as Tolstoy says, is not chaotic. 

The drama has, indeed, fallen from its high origin. The 
problem is crucial to-day, and depends on our understanding 
of Shakespeare. Whilst Shakespeare's plays are allowed to 
stand insouciantly regardless of all ultimate questions, then 
we can safely continue to deny any necessary religious con 
tent to the greatest dramatic poetry; since no one will readily 
deny to Shakespeare at least an honourable place in dramatic 
history. Once, however, we see that Shakespeare is an artist 
fit to stand by Dante in point of religious apprehension, then 
the case for the religious message and purpose of the drama 
becomes unanswerable. 

We must attend to the true interpretation of Shakespeare. 
Then we shall recognize the deeper meanings of his romantic 
comedies, their dreamland melodies set beyond the stormy 
seas of misfortune. And we must observe the blending of 
that music with the tempestuous passions of the tragedies. 
We must understand the disorder-philosophy of the His 
tories, the death-forces in Hamlet and Macbeth embattled 
against life, the Christian ethic of Measure for Measure, the 
purgatorial vision of King Lear, the accomplished paradise 
of Antony and Cleopatra.* And beyond those we shall be 
directed to the birth and resurrection dramas of the Final 
Plays; recognizing therein true myths of immortality caught 

i See my essays on Antwy and Cleopatra in The Imperial 



TOLSTOY'S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE 297 

from the penetralium of mystery by one of the few greatest 
writers of the world. 

Tolstoy understood and trenchantly stated the modern 
problem : 

The life of humanity only approaches perfection by the elucidation of 
religious consciousness (the only principle securely uniting men one with 
another). The elucidation of the religious consciousness of man is accom 
plished through all sides of man's spiritual activity. One side of that 
activity is art. One part of art, and almost the most important, is the 
drama. 

And therefore the drama, to deserve the importance attributed to it, 
should serve the elucidation of religious consciousness. Such the drama 
always was, and such it was in the Christian world. But with the appear 
ance of Protestantism in its broadest sense that is to say, the appearance 
of a new understanding of Christianity as a teaching of life dramatic art 
did not find a form corresponding to this new understanding of religion, 
and the men of the Renaissance period were carried away by the imitation 
of classical art. This was most natural, but the attraction should have passed, 
and art should have found, as it is now beginning to find, a new form 
corresponding to the altered understanding of Christianity, (p. 459) 

What 'new form* did Tolstoy expect? Probably a strictly 
ethical drama, concerned, not with theology, poetic sym 
bolism, death and resurrection, that world of high and 
creative imagination proper to great art, but rather with the 
fine simplicities of goodness, human sacrifice, human labour, 
human love. A drama of ethic and characterization. 

One cannot deny the rugged beauty of Tolstoy's gospel. 
But it is not enough; not enough for a great religious drama. 
Such drama will be not merely ethical, but metaphysical too, 
often theocentric, always intensely symbolical. It must body 
forth in terms of human action and the varied melodies of 
speech the emotions that surge in man, the grief that wrings 
his soul, the joy that lights his laughter; and it must suggest 
the supernatural forces that prompt his little act, the pur 
poses unseen which man serves alike with sun and star and 
waving corn. It will rend the veil which shrouds the ultimate 
mysteries of birth and death, so that graves wake their 
sleepers at its command. Persons both satanic and divine 
will inter-thread its story, the multitudinous seas sound their 
war in the tempests of its action, the wrath of its gods 
thunder from heaven to earth; while all eternities shall linger 
in its music. 



XV 
HAMLET RECONSIDERED (1947) 

PRELIMINARY NOTE 

This essay, a rough preliminary draft of which I have had by me for a 
number cf years, is intended to supplement, though not to replace, those 
already written (including my 'Rose of May' in The Imperial Theme}. I hope 
all the essays will be read in conjunction. It is not, however, supposed that 
they exhaust the latent meanings of Hamlet \ and I would draw the attention 
of my readers to Mr. Roy Walker's very important study in imaginative 
interpretation, The Time is Out ofjoint^ being published by Andrew Dakers 
(which I had the privilege of seeing in typescript). Though our approaches 
are basically similar, and our material in places overlaps, the ckshes are, on the 
whole, comparatively few : an additional witness, if such be needed, of the 
play's peculiar and inexhaustible wealth, 

I 

MY former essays on Hamlet have for long seemed to 
me both inadequate and, in their emphasis, mis 
leading. I here offer a restatement, intended, however, less 
to contradict than to extend and expand my earlier remarks, 
whilst enlisting for new attention certain scenes and speeches 
hitherto unjustly neglected. 

I challenged the obvious reading of Hamlet as wholly 
or almost wholly sympathetic and Claudius as a thorough 
stage villain. To that challenge I still, in general, adhere, 
with this reservation; that the obvious reading is, as it were, 
assumed and supposed to be modified, not dispelled, by the 
new remarks. We all know that Hamlet starts as an admirable 
young man of high ideals and excellent intentions, that 
Claudius is a criminal opportunist, Gertrude a woman of the 
world and Ophelia a weakling. But this is not the whole 
truth. Suppose, in the war of 191418, one man volunteers 
for service and returns a mental and moral wreck, while a 
friend of his stays at home and builds up, by profiteering, a 
sound business. In 1935 the one has behind him a criminal 
career, the other is a respected member of society radiating 
health and happiness. We assume that volunteering for 
service is, for purposes of our parable, a high moral action : 

298 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 299 

yet it leads to evil. Both men appear later before the gates of 
Heaven. What should St. Peter do? 

Such problems call naturally for dramatic exploitation. 
Absolute honesty was satirised in Moltere's Alceste, in Le 
Misanthrope; and somewhat similarly Ibsen's Gregers in The 
Wild Duck spreads misery in the name of his * claims of the 
ideal*. The possibility of evil conditioning social good is the 
theme alike of Ibsen's Pillars of Society and Shaw's Major 
Barbara. Here is Undershaft, Shaw's successful munition 
magnate : 

I moralized and starved until one day I swore that I would be a full-fed 
free man at all costs ; that nothing should stop me except a bullet, neither 
reason nor morals nor the lives of other men. I said, 4 Thou shalt starve 
ere I starve* ; and with that word I became free and great. I was a dan 
gerous man until I had my will : now I am a useful, beneficent, kindly 
person. That is the history of most self-made millionaires, I fancy. When 
it is the history of every Englishman we shall have an England worth 
living in. 

We are reminded of Claudius. The problem is not, strictly 
speaking, ethical: it is rather the problem of ethics, or 
morality. Is morality autonomous? Are morals good? We 
are plunged into a realm beyond morality, beyond good and 
evil ; into Nietzsche's world ; though it would be a foolishness 
to equate the thoughts of Shaw's ironic comedy with the 
Nietzschean profundity. It is, however, that very profundity 
to which Hamlet introduces us. 1 

These complexities my former essays related to the more 
final opposition of life and death. The play is shadowed by 
death, and this we ignore at our peril. Whatever else we find 
within the play a primary emphasis, in interpretation or 
production, must be allowed to the imaginative weight of 
the Ghost scenes, the Graveyard, the final group of dead 
bodies, Hamlet's soliloquy and clothes; to the poetic 
realization of death as a living presence. Whatever else we 
discover, these, the imaginative, poetic and dramatic, 
solidities must be preserved. 

Such are the difficulties in whose toils Hamlet and the 
other persons to say nothing of the poor would-be com- 

* My references to Nietwchc are elucidated in my stud) of Thus Spake Ztirathtstra in 
C/trist and Xienuche. 



3<DO HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

mentator are caught. The drama aims to penetrate beyond 
good and evil by relating the opposition to life and death, 
using a complex design in which the positive of one opposi 
tion is alined with the negative of the other, so sharply 
stimulating our sense of incongruity and dissatisfaction. 

In my earlier essays I rather rashly and this is sympto 
matic of what I do find wanting in them stated that on 
certain occasions Hamlet showed 'utter loss of control'; but 
this is surely a matter best left to the individual reader, actor 
or producer. The unsatisfactory nature of my own statements 
was brought home to me whilst acting the part, when my 
emphases fell differently; and differently too during per 
formances in different productions. Shakespeare has been at 
great pains, as Bridges puts it in The Testament of Beauty^ to 
set Hamlet 'gingerly' excellent word! on the knife-edge 
dividing sanity from madness. The variations of that delicate 
balance, which may here or there tilt one way or the other 
on different readings, are not to be arbitrarily defined. 

But why should Shakespeare do this ? The recurrence of 
mad themes in great literature, and especially in drama, or 
works of dramatic quality, is obvious: in Greek and Eliza 
bethan drama, in Dostoievsky, in Melville, in Journey s End 
(which I take to be a more important work than is usually 
supposed). Madness or semi-madness may be used and 
this is especially clear in Stanhope for dramatizing a pro 
found insight. The poet, by projecting and mastering mad 
themes in literature, is able to make certain daring explora 
tions without risking personal insanity. His art is at once an 
adventure into and a mastery of the demonic, Nietzsche's 
*Dionysian' world. Now Hamlet the man has often enough 
been felt to reflect, in some especial sense, the poet himself, 
the artistic temperament as such ; and if this be so, it is quite 
natural that he should be shown in a state of variously con 
trolled insanity. Here, as in other matters, the play tries to 
strike a peculiarly subtle balance. So, like many a poet or 
dramatist (e.g. Byron, Shaw), Hamlet attacks society by wit 
and buffoonery, as well as by actual play-production, in 
order to make an all but impossible relation or reference 
where disparity is clear and the time 'out of joint* (i. v. 1 88). 
Hamlet suffers for his profundity, for his advance, pre- 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 30! 

maturely hastened by his ghost-converse, beyond normality 
and mortality. He is on the way to superman status in the 
Nietzschean sense. 

II 

We must next proceed to some highly complex analyses. 
Many readers must have wondered why, though the play is 
certainly profound, though Hamlet is himself supposed to 
be a profound thinker, yet, when we actually consider the 
speeches concerned, there seems little peculiarly difficult or 
deep. The words are simple, the events easy to follow. Yet 
somehow the whole, and even Hamlet's own speeches, 
remain inexhaustibly baffling. Part of the reason we have 
already attributed to the peculiar countering of imaginative 
and ethical principles: but there is more to notice. Certain 
key speeches remain to be considered. As thought, the 
thinking in these is, superficially at least, simple; but it 
reflects something other, beyond thought; it reflects, or 
discusses, a state of being, and that state is not simple, nor 
the speeches, if carefully inspected, easily understood. Just 
as we are here pushed beyond morality, beyond good and 
evil though the play never properly succeeds in advancing 
beyond life and death so we are at times pushed, as it were> 
to a thinking beyond thought. 

We are to concentrate now on the middle action starting 
with the Players' entry. This scene with the Players at first 
appears very dubiously organic. It cannot be adequately 
placed by a reference to Hamlet's 'character* and the nature 
of his hobbies; not, anyway, without a more profound insight 
than is usual into the function of hobbies in general and this 
in particular. The play before the King as normally under 
stood has a melodramatic plot interest only. We shall observe 
its deeper implications; but these alone can scarcely justify 
this lengthy introduction. 

The Player's long Hecuba speech (u. ii. 498), rich in epic 
remembrance of a famous action concerned with the cruelty 
of 'fortune', acts on Hamlet, as does Fortir* bras' army later, 
facing him with the world of high endeavour and noble 
suffering to which he is not tuned. The Player's rant and 



302 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

tears suggest not an unreal emotion, but rather the use and 
unleashing of real emotion where artistic emotion was more 
properly in order. Hamlet is not therefore impressed by the 
Player's art, though he is an admirer of the lines themselves. 
His own speaking, according to Polonius, showed 'good 
accent* and 'discretion* (n. ii. 498) and he is later to give the 
Players a lesson in declamation. Polonius is a sensitive critic: 
he it is who objects to the speech's length and, noting the 
man's tears, calls it off; though Hamlet, tactfully ('He's for 
a jig or a tale of bawdry or he sleeps', n. ii. 530) does his 
best throughout to support his friend. Possibly the account 
of the boy actors is supposed to underline the quality of these 
older travelling players : the typical 'old actor' being super- 
ceded by these peculiarly young upstarts. 1 

In his soliloquy Hamlet feels inferior, not to the artist, 
but to the man who feels too passionately to be a good artist: 

What's Hecuba to Him or he to Hecuba 

That he should weep for her? (n. ii. 593) 

So he feels inferior; as later he feels inferior before Fortin- 
bras. 'Am I a coward?' he asks (n. ii. 606), From the stand 
point of good art he has no reason to feel inferior, since his 
speaking is better than the Player's. He is, too, half-way to 
a state higher than Fortinbras'; but such claims to worth do 
not, in practice, prevent people like Hamlet Prufrock is a 
modern example from feeling inferior. After praising the 
Player's outburst he allows, or perhaps rather forces, him 
self, to express his own feelings, which stream out in a 
succession of vulgar adjectives : 

Bloody, bawdy villain ! 
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain J 

(n. ii. 6 1 6) 

The facile alliteration and jingle underline the words' 
superficial quality, and, as later in the Graveyard scene, 
Hamlet is annoyed at his own rant. What he wants is some 
thing more than curses and less, for a reason the play never, 
except perhaps once ('Is't not perfect conscience to quit him 

* Some of the dialogue concerning the battlcof the theatres is doubtfully organic. Mr. Roy 
Walker ees in the Players* supercesiion by children a reflection in miniature of the play's 
central problem. Certainly the contrast of 'rapiers 1 and 'goose-quills' support* such a reading. 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 303 

with this arm?' v. ii. 67), defines, than bloodshed. Towards 
the end of his soliloquy he finds it: the play before the King. 
His speaking was artistic speaking and this is pre-eminently 
the artist's solution. All art is a means of relating the higher, 
beyond-thought, super-state to the lower, normal, con 
sciousness of society. It is approach, attack, and love, all in 
one. Hamlet becomes therefore a critic of society resembling 
Moli&re, Voltaire, Swift, Ibsen, Shaw, using art for his 
purpose, aiming to attack from within, to raise a fifth column 
in the soul of his antagonist, to awake conscience: 

I have heard 

That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, 
Have, by the very cunning of the scene, 
Been struck so to the soul that presently 
They have proclaimed their malefactions ; 
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak 
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players 
Play something like the murder of my father 
Before mine uncle. 1*11 observe his looks. 
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench 
I know my course . . . (n. ii. 625) 

He wonders if such promptings as the Ghost's are indeed 
trustworthy. He wants to bring truth to light: 

The play's the thing 
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King ! (u. ii. 641) 

Let 'King' stand for government, for society, the world 
over and *the play* for dramatic art, so consistently concerned 
vith sin and conscience, at all times and places. We begin 
to see why this couplet echoes and re-echoes in us with a 
more than melodramatic meaning. 

It might be argued that Hamlet's is not the highest kind 
of art; that it serves a detective function, is at the best 
propagandist and satiric. But something similar works 
within all great drama, the 'detective* function there ex 
ploring the depths of the unconscious, the soul, of the 
audience. There is no ultimate distinction. Elsewhere Ham 
let's view of drama is perhaps Jonsonian rather than Shake 
spearian. He sees it as eminently a social reflection : 

They are the abstracts and brief chronicles of* the time. After your death 
you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live. 

(11. ii. 555) 



304 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

As a thinker, Hamlet is, in all these passages, still tangled 
in the web of good and evil, though he has glimpses, as we 
shall see, of something more important. To his mother he 
preaches directly, moving after the play from stage to 
pulpit. 

To return. When, after the first Players' scene, we next 
meet Hamlet, we find him, as never elsewhere, in a serene, 
backwater, mood, entirely in his own world, whatever that 
may be. He is unhampered by contact with others: remember 
his earlier sigh of relief at 'Now I am alone . . .' (ir. ii. 583). 
But this time he does not, as before, consider his immediate 
contacts and purposes : his thoughts are at once less hampered 
and more universal. Here, if anywhere, we should get the 
real Hamlet. 

This soliloquy (m. i. 56-88) at first seems reasonably 
clear, but difficulties multiply on close inspection. Com 
mentators differ as to whether Hamlet's 

To be, or not to be ; that is* the question 

refers to the proposed killing of Claudius or to the killing 
of himself. Hitherto I have supported the latter reading, but 
I now think that both are somehow included, or rather 
surveyed from a vantage not easy to define. Let us leave the 
opening until we have studied the remainder. 

The thinking is enigmatic and its sequences baffling; and 
our analysis cannot avoid complexity. It will be the more 
easily followed if we remember the root dualism of the play: 
that of (i) introspection, deathly melancholia, and a kind of 
half-willing passivity and (ii) strong governement (the King), 
martial honour (Fortinbras) and lively normality (Laertes). 
Synthesis appears impossible. There seems to be no middle 
path. Our soliloquy attempts the synthesis by means of a 
confused and ambiguous phraseology. Hamlet considers 

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles 

And, by opposing, end them. (in. i. 57) 

The first lines suggest the universal problem of man's tragic 
destiny, but the last two at least seem to indicate an actual 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 305 

contest: such sea-imagery is associated elsewhere in Shake 
speare with the repelling of armed invasion. 1 'Take arms' 
therefore hints the idea of hostile action as opposed to 
passive endurance, though one cannot be sure that suicide, 
as a violent reply to fortune, may not be present also. One 
could argue that, since 'slings and arrows' are metaphorical, 
'take arms' may be so too; and that 'sea of troubles' in close 
association with 'fortune' suggests a universal problem that 
could not be adequately met by direct action, with 'suicide* 
as a necessary corollary constituent to the meaning. The 
phraseology is at once inclusive and enigmatic, and enig 
matic precisely because it is inclusive of incompatibles, since 
hostile action is the direct opposite of suicide; self-slaughter, 
in terms at least of life, being the one ultimate and absolute 
retreat. It is this absolute distinction that normally confuses 
Hamlet and such as he (the pacifist to-day is an example), 
since there appears to be no proper middle way; yet here it 
would appear that Hamlet's mind is thinking somehow 
outside, or above, this apparently vital distinction. His 
phraseology is abnormal; and it is to grow more so. 

Next, he meditates on death, not necessarily as a result of 
suicide which it is at least arguable that he has not yet 
considered but purely as a general philosophic speculation, 
considering carefully its possibilities of peace and pain, and 
moving on explicitly to suicide as the obvious solution to 
human ills could one be sure of a dreamless sleep. This forms 
the main body of our soliloquy and is easy to understand, 
being typical enough of our death-shadowed protagonist. 
But we are finally returned, in a most peculiar manner, to 
the world of fine action : from deathly and explicitly suicidal 
meditation, but with no sense whatever of contrast, to the 
Fortinbras values. The phraseology is again enigmatic. Fear 
of the future life 'puzzles the will' of the would-be suicide, 
The phrase is clear; yet, in view of Hamlet's central problem 
throughout, we cannot avoid a semi-conscious reference to 
worldly action. Next, we hear that 'conscience does make 
cowards of us all.' Now 'conscience' may mean (i) conscience 
in the modern sense, as 'Catch the conscience of the King* 



* See also Rickardll* xi. i. 62; KiniJok** n. i. 24; Pcricltt* nr. 1^43; v. i. 195; 
v. iv. 96. See The Crottm of Lift* p. 194. 



306 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

(n. ii. 642), 'How smart a lash that speech doth give my 
conscience* (m. i, 50), 'They are not near my conscience' 

fn Z * O\ **ta.*4 *T**- **ss> vv A*nr*4- r+rv\c>r*'i ^^r**** fir it /C*T\ THlnA*"^ 



(v. ii. 58), and 'Is't not perfect conscience* (v. ii. 67). There 




honoured (as at i. v. 87), and only dubiously to be 
related to cowardice. Some commentators read (ii) 'con 
science' ='excessive self-consciousness*; that is, the fault of 
'thinking too precisely on the event* (iv. iv. 41), the very 
words by which Hamlet contrasts his own indecision with 
the valour of a Fortinbras ('coward' occurs in both contexts). 
So we have suicide directly related to Fortinbras' military 
ardour. Can Hamlet mean that if he were as true to his own 
longings as a Fortinbras is to his, he would kill, not others, 
but himself? Or merely that his conscience, in the religious 
sense, precludes suicide? Or both? And now things get 
swiftly worse; for next we hear that, through this failure in 
courage, 'the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with 
the pale cast of thought.* The image (cp. Fortinbras' 'lawless 
resolutes* at i, i. 98) contrasts the chubby face of youthful 
ardour with the sickly introspection of the ascetic. But what 
on earth has this rosy-cheeked boy to do with suicide? 
for it is he, not the other, who is expected to take the plunge. 
Every line now, by careful gradation, is directing our 
thoughts more and more clearly from suicide towards the 
incompatible ideal of strong worldly action among men: 
'pale cast of thought* quite inevitably belongs to 'thinking 
too precisely on the event* (iv. iv. 41). Lastly we are told 
that this is how 

enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regard their currents turn awry, 
And lose the name of action. (m. i. 86) 

No one can conceivably suppose that suicide is here intended. 
The 'enterprises' concerned (cp. Julius Caesar, n. i. 133; it 
is a usual word) are clearly of the same genre as the activities 
(called 'enterprise' at i. i. 99) of a Fortinbras (e.g. his invasion 
ofPoland). 

We have then a sequence of abnormal thinking holding 
in solution, as it were, the jarring opposites of our play. 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 307 

It starts from what at least seems thought of strong action 
('take arms', 'oppose'), proceeds through death and suicide, 
and thence returns imperceptibly, yet through an increasing 
tilting of the balance, to a final emphasis on strong action. 
The central thought is suicide. Suicide is the one obvious 
fusion the best Hamlet can reach at this stage of the 
opposing principles of fine action and death-shadowed pas 
sivity, will and suffering, sanity and madness. It is the ulti 
mate passivity, being self-negating; yet, being a deed, it is 
an acted, a lived, a violent and challenging passivity. It is a 
cool and carefully willed plunge into the irrational, the 
Dionysian, whose approaches, mixing with affairs, make 
madness, crime, tragedy. It is thus an attempt to take 
Nirvana by storm, and so innately paradoxical, raising 
natural fears of a possible fallacy ('Perchance to dream'). 
We can at least see how naturally suicide-thinking here, as 
in Dostoievsky's Possessed, may be felt as the one perfect act 
of the integrated man ; and also how it rises naturally from a 
bedding of confused and paradoxical phraseology; though 
we, like Hamlet, shall suspect the fallacy in so negative a 
deed. In these terms, however, we can, provisionally, find one 
sort of synthesis between the values of a Hamlet and those 
of a Fortinbras: since both self-slayer and soldier possess an 
integration on the border-line of life and death. The suicide, 
like Fortinbras, 'makes mouths at the invisible event* 
exposing 'what is mortal and unsure* (iv. iv. 50) to the 
worst death can offer. Through him life deliberately uses its 
own energy to contradict more, to contra-act, itself. In 
such terms, not unlike those, and yet how different! since 
there there is a positive aim of Antony and Cleopatra^ we 
approach a synthesis of life and death. 1 

So Hamlet's mind, set 'gingerly' between such extremes 
we might also call them the extremes of extraversion and 
introversion, of masculine and feminine is here in placid, 
wandering thought voyaging through his own problems and 

1 Shakespeare's thinking on suicide is variously important. It mav ** tf ven either 
approval or disapproval. Our present passage should be compared with Edgar's 'Men mutt 
endure (i.e wait for) their going hence, even as their coming hither* nce 'ri pencil is all' 
(King Lear, v. ii 9), and also with the life-death fusion through suicide of Antony nd 
Cleopatra, where all the positives dominate. Observe that the life of Christ would be les* 
perfect without a willed self-sacrifice of life ittdf. 



308 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

in his reverie half-glimpsing, or rather through enigmatic 
phrases and suicide thoughts half-creating, the synthesis of 
his agonising incompatibles. For once these extremes inter- 
shade, they are fluid and run into each other, like dreams. 
This is a lonely reverie but, like Richard II's reverie in 
prison, 1 a creative state, like poetry. It is an approach. To 
what? Here we can attempt a definition of the opening. 

'To be 1 can scarcely just mean 'to act'; nor, surely^ does 
Hamlet mean anything so simple as 'to live or die* and 
nothing more. He might mean 'to exist or not to exist after 
death*, but that makes no proper opening to a speech 
certainly concerned deeply with this thought but containing 
others that tend to interrupt the sequence such an opening 
demands : if this be its whole meaning, then it is a poor 
opening. Probably all these meanings are somehow con 
tained; but can we not find something more precise to say 
about them ? After all, these are probably the most famous 
words in Shakespeare. Well, you may say, was it not an 
opening that just occurred to Shakespeare by chance and 
which he, like ourselves, recognized as neat without looking 
deeper? Very probably something of the sort did happen. 
But what we have to do is to interpret, not Shakespeare's 
intention, but our own sense of this being the perfect 
opening to the central speech in the most discussed work in 
the world's literature. Is it not likely to hold some great 
thought? What, then, can it mean? What must it mean? 'If 
a thing', says the philosopher, 'may be, and must be, it is*. 

Hamlet is here in momentary possession of his own 
universe, surveying those opposite approaches to his goal, 
of fine action and endurance, or of both if it may be 
possible in one, with which, from start to finish, the play 
Is mainly concerned. And the goal itself, what is that? *To 
be'; that is, not merely to live, to act, to exist, but really to be; 
to be, as an integrated and whole person, not in the modern 
psychological but in the Nietzschean sense, A super-state 
is indicated, a marriage of the twin elements, masculine and 
feminine, in the soul, whereby the personality is beyond the 
antinomies of action and passivity; a lived poetry blending 

Richard'* important soliloquy is ttudicd in my 'Note on Richard IT in The Imperial 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 309 

consciousness and unconsciousness, like Keats 1 *might half- 
slumbering on its own right arm*. In this state one is beyond 
fear of death since life and death have ceased to exist as 
antinomies. So Hamlet defines his major problem and pro 
ceeds, from a height, or depth, half enjoying in a dreamlike 
confusion the state he aspires to, to survey those different 
approaches through time and eternity that are open to him. 
He does not wholly succeed. The one clear emerging solu 
tion, suicide, felt as a way out from a bad life to a possibly 
unpleasant death, is rightly suspect. After all, the state 
indicated is an all but impossible integration, the Christ- 
state. It is no less than the final goal of the race; and that is 
precisely why the opening line echoes and re-echoes from 
generation to generation with an ultimate authority. 

Whilst in this mood not 'state', since he does not 
securely possess the integration he glimpses he is con 
fronted suddenly by the girl he loves, Ophelia. Now 
Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and therefore also, presumably, his 
Superman, is, like Christ, necessarily unmarried, since the 
higher integration is a marriage within the personality that 
positively precludes marriage. Hamlet is thus in a super- 
sexual, monastic, mood and Ophelia is discovered at her 
devotions. We may recall the subtle tempting of Angelo 1 : 

O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, 
With saints dost bait thy hook ! 

{Measure for Measure* n. ii. 180) 

A host of conflicting emotions necessarily swirl in Hamlet 
now. He wishes to be remembered in her prayers, he denies 
his love, he urges her to enter a nunnery, he rejects human 
life, sex and procreation wholesale. Much of it is forced by 
his temporary beyond-marriage integration ; but one watches 
a swift decline, not unlike that of Isabella. Super-sexual care 
of a loved weakling swiftly becomes (something similar 
happens in his interview with his mother) neurotic infra- 
sexual cynicism and ends in behaviour like madness: the 
dialogue is admirably devised to underline Hamlet's utter 
failure to live the synthesis he dreams. It is, pretty nearly, 
unactable: at least, the actor can do little more than go 

* Tie conception of Angelo i* clearly implicit in that of Hatnlet: in both idcalitm leads 
on to a most unidealistic violence. 



3IO HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

through the paces required : the text, if properly understood, 
is too powerful for dramatic exposition. 

When we next meet Hamlet he has recovered his balance 
and is addressing the Players (in. ii. i). The speech is not, 
as one might think, an inessential. Shakespeare is not taking 
time off from the exigencies of drama to have a fling on his 
own. Shakespeare's own interests are certainly being used, 
but they are used for a purpose relating to the inmost nature 
of the drama he is composing. 

Here Hamlet is again, and more precisely so than before, 
the artist, 1 In artistic terms he enjoys full possession and 
expression of the super-state for which he was recently 
groping in creative reverie. Remember that his speaking 
earlier was good, though the Player's was not. He has now 
been giving the Players a lesson : 

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on 
the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as 
lief the town-crier spoke my lines (in. ii. i) 

Here, if nowhere else, Hamlet knows what he is talking 
about, and the flow of his prose style is correspondingly 
assured. Now Hamlet's advice outlines in terms of stage 
artistry the conditions in which the play's major conflicts 
might be resolved. The Players are to control their passions; 
they are to attain repose. The most violent actions on the 
stage must be graceful and temperate: 

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all 
gently ; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of 
passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it 
smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig- 
pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the 
groundlings (in. ii. 4) 

The same is true of style in any game, of skill in any craft. 
Hamlet's phrases mirror, moreover, a truth of life-as-art. It 
is the same with any artistic theory of worth: point by point 
references of Pope's Essay on Criticism to the art of living are 
profoundly revealing. In living, as in art, creative action 
matures not from bluster and violence, but from repose. 

' For my previous remarks on Hamlet's importance as aesthetic theorist and social drama 
tist, see variously The Burning Oracle, p. 44; The Olive and the Sword, p. 43 ,- The Crown of 
Life, pp. 207, 221 , Ckriit and MetzscAe, p. 223 (composed, 1940). 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 3! I 

'Controlled emotion* does not quite describe that repose, 
since it suggests a dualism: it is precisely Hamlet's efforts at 
self-control that witness his inability to live his own artistic 
wisdom. The art of life is not an ethic; ethic, like technical 
rules, is a makeshift. The repose, or poise, required corre 
sponds again to Keats' definition of poetry as 'might, half- 
slumbering on its own right arm*; in life it will suggest a 
trust in beneficent powers to do their share Keats' 'negative 
capability' without over-straining, impatience and anxiety 
in oneself, the trust expressed later in 'There's a special 
providence in the fall of a sparrow* (v. ii. 232); in acting, it 
is the power of the thing left unsaid, the gesture not made. 
It will always be partly unconscious and instinctive. The 
beginner at golf is usually guilty of 'thinking too precisely 
on the event' ; but not so the expert, whose thought is em 
bedded in, sunk in, dissolved throughout, the living action, 
mind and body functioning as a unit. So it is with the actor; 
the action is to be suited to the word, the word to the action 
(in. ii. 20), far more exactly than by any conscious planning; 
and so too, with 'word* assuming a deeper significance, in the 
wholly dedicated, saintly, life. But such a life is not necessarily 
passive. The actors are specifically warned that they be *not 
too tame* : they are to pursue the tight-rope course between 
nature and artificiality, to set their art 'gingerly' between 
the extremes of romantic and classic. The same note was 
struck by Hamlet in his praise of the play which was 
'caviare to the general', characterized by 'modesty* and lack 
of affectation, 'an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, 
and by very much more handsome than fine* (ii. ii. 46675). 
What we are stressing is nothing new : it is the old doctrine 
of the Tao; 1 the 'nothing too much* of ancient Greece; it 
conditions the creation of Nietzsche's Superman, a creature 
of superb repose, yet 'terrible' in 'goodness*; it is given 
fullest incarnation in the life of Christ, in whom passivity 
and a listening in to Divine purpose becomes positive and 
challenging activity, with victory maturing from death. In 
terms of dramatic art Hamlet's speech outlines, as his 'To 
be, or not to be* soliloquy groped after, the one positive to 

See * most interesting article concerning Confucius most relevant to our present dis 
cussion, in Tke Wind and tkt Raiit, by Mr. F. Sherwood Taylor (Autumn 1946). 



312, HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

which the unresolved conflicts of this and all such dramas 
point. 

There is, of course, more in the speech, some of it less 
widely significant. The necessity of truth to nature 'a 
mirror up to nature* is, as in Pope, central, while the image 
of one of 'nature's journeymen* strutting and bellowing may 
be ironically applied to Hamlet himself within the artistry 
of life, at least during the middle action. 

Hamlet is continually feeling, through various approaches, 
towards this elusive ideal. Here is an earlier expression : 

What a piece of work is a man ! How noble in reason ; how infinite in 
faculty; in form, in moving, how express and admirable; in action how 
like an angel; in apprehension how like a god i The beauty of the world, 
the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of 
dust? Man delights not me. (n. ii. 323) 

The words make no claim to any supernal insight; yet the 
phrase 'in action how like an angel' is especially relevant. 1 
It suggests a certain athletic grace and poise that, if grouped 
with other such passages in Shakespeare, especially the 
description of 'young Harry* light as 'feathered Mercury* 
leaping on his horse as an angel 'dropped down* from 
Heaven (/ Henry IP \ iv. i. 104), help to define, pictorially, 
our aim. Nietzsche's Superman is likewise an angelic person, 
created by the descent of 'grace* to the visible order. To 
Hamlet his own father was such a gracious figure : 

See, what a grace was seated on this brow 1 

Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, 

An eye like Mars to threaten and command ; 

A station like the herald Mercury 

New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; 

A combination and a form indeed 

Where every god did seem to set his seal, 

To give the world assurance of a man. (HI. iv. 5 5) 

Such pictorial glimpses of man transfigured play an impor 
tant part in Hamlet*s story. 

His feeling after human perfection may, however, be 
presented more inwardly, more psychologically. Directly 
after his address to the Players there follows immediately 
and most aptly the sequence of Shakespeare's thought from 

See my 'Note* on the Text of Hamlct\ Note B. 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 313 

art to life is beautifully clear 1 Hamlet's carefully phrased 
address to Horatio, whom he considers 'as just a man' as his 
own 'imagination' has encountered: 

Dostthou hear? 

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice 
And could of men distinguish, her election 
Hast seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been 
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing; 
A man, that fortunes' buffets and rewards 
Hast ta'en with equal thanks ; and bless'd are those 
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled 
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger 
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man 
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him 
In my heart's core, ay in my heart of heart, 
As I do thee. (HI. ii. 67) 

Horatio (whether rightly or not need not concern us he 
is being used very obviously for this purpose) is defined as a 
man well on the way to integration. 'Fortune's finger* re 
calls 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' (ni. i. 58) 
in Hamlet's soliloquy. Notice the emphasis on invulnerable 
suffering. Notice, too, that Horatio does not control his 
passions: rather his 'blood* (i.e. virility, passion) and 'judg 
ment' are (as in the art of acting) 'commingled', a marriage 
of elements, as in Nietzsche, being indicated. On the stage 
of life Horatio uses all 'gently'. Kipling's If offers a similar 
insight: 

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master; 
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim; 
If you can meet with triumph and disaster, 
And treat those two imposters just the same . . . 

Such a person will, we are told, be 'a man': 

And, what is more, you'll be a man, my son. 

For *man' we must clearly read, or understand, 'superman*, 
as also, pretty nearly, in Hamlet's description of his father 
as a 'combination* of god-like faculties which 'give the 
world assurance of a man' (in. iv. 62). Man, as yet, has not 
fulfilled the purposes of God, or Nature: he is only on rare 
occasions what he was meant to be, or become. So, too, 
Brutus is described in terms of a synthesis of faculties 

* Mr. Roy Walker ha* independently observed this interesting transition. 



314 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

recalling Hamlet's speech to Horatio (himself 'more an 
antique Roman, than a Dane' v. ii. 355), and ending with 
an emphasis on 'man' : 

His life was gentle, and the elements 

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up 

And say to all the world, 'This was a man*. 

(Julius Caesar, v. v. 73) 

That is, Nature could for once boast of her handiwork. True, 
these speeches are not explicitly transcendental; but they are 
very valuable pointers. Certainly Hamlet feels his father as, 
pretty nearly, a superman: 

He was a man ; take him for all in all; 

I shall not look upon his like again. (i. ii. 1 87) 

Why not? Except that to Hamlet his own father is, partly 
through love for love always has precisely this trans 
figuring quality felt as an earnest, a symptom, of what 
humankind should be; man not as he, 'this quintessence of 
dust* (n. ii. 328), is to our normal awareness, but as, given 
the right occasion and speaking the language of the gods, or 
of Shakespeare, he may appear, sometimes, on the stage; 
and may be expected to appear, one day, in full actuality, on 
the stage of Earth or Heaven. 

Hamlet's play before the King is provisionally successful, 
but leads nowhere. Neither here, nor in his move from stage 
to pulpit to sermonize his mother where, as in his dialogue 
with Ophelia, a noble super-sexual idealism degenerates 
swiftly into infra-sexual neurosis, does he appear really 
effectual. He can compose a stinging, satiric and ironic play; 
but he cannot live that wholeness reflected by the art itself 
as opposed to its obvious content; that wholeness reflected 
by his address to the Players. He is not who is? a 'man* 
in this highest sense. The play's central paradox, whereby 
the good person is a continual threat to a reasonably normal 
society, reaches a climax in these violent yet ineffectual 
scenes. Hamlet in life cannot act creatively. 1 He looks back, 

* Observe that Hamlet, in the manner of the neurotic, expends great energy without 
directing it wisely; just as the over-swinging of a golf tyro represent* not a superabundance 
but a misplacing of energy, since hi* club, at the moment of impact* is not as forceful as he 
thinks. 'Style' in any game or art b the right use and tuning of energy and emphasis, not 
9. repudiation of t^*"*. Hence 'over-acting* is a dangerous term. Good acting cannot be too 
powerful. 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

is critical, shows little love. His play is satiric and Jonsonian ; 
his philosophy death-ridden and Websterian; his sex disgust 
Swiftian and Manichean. He is sunk deep in the knowledge 
of good and evil and clogged by ethic. Only in reverie, 
artistic theory and occasional mind-pictures of transfigured 
man, does he glimpse a resolution. That is, he does not attain 
to the Shakespearian health which puts him into action and 
surveys his failure, nor to the New Testament freedom from 
the Law. That is why he cannot move through society with 
the assurance of a Christ, or a St. Francis; and nothing else, 
it might seem, would serve his turn. He cannot even get as 
far as his cousins Timon and Prospero; he cannot rise 
beyond what Nietzsche calls *the avenging mind'. He is thus 
left divided, all but insane, spasmodic. More: he is ill- 
mannered which, as we shall see, is perhaps worse. 

Our play thus indirectly attacks ethics. Hamlet may 
purpose well, he may try to control himself, he may will the 
good; but, though he has intuitions of a supreme excellence, 
he cannot in life 'suit the action to the word, the word to the 
action' in perfect reciprocity. We are necessarily baffled, since 
it is hard to reconcile ourselves to the utter inadequacy of 
such good intentions. Hamlet can indeed rouse the King's 
and his mother's conscience, but cannot help them to ad 
vance; since conscience alone is, like Pope's 'reason', *a sharp 
accuser but a helpless friend' (Essay on Man y n. 154). The 
point is, if your state of being is harmonious, your deeds 
are creative, on one plane or another ('His can't be wrong 
whose life is in the right', 'Whate'er is best administered is 
best', Essay on Man, in. 306; in. 304). Observe how Timon, 
whilst urging them to excesses, most amusingly reforms 
the Bandits. While, however, your own state remains 
divided, your highest idealism, even an idealism willing the 
super, the undivided, state, may lead to evil; and there 
appears to be no short cut. In all this Hamlet is a symbol of 
man, with his highest idealism and best art, in our era, yet 
trammelled still in concepts of the Law, justice and death. 
The result is a multiplicity of murders. The Christian 
position that is, the positives of Christ and St. Paul 
though not here explicitly surveyed (as they are in Measure 
for Measure\ are insistently suggested. 



316 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

I would therefore not retract what I have elsewhere said 
concerning the evil in Hamlet, except to admit a certain 
exaggeration and to remind myself and my readers that we 
are judging him by a very high standard; by the standard, 
indeed, of Christ. And so paradoxical is this world of ours 
that it remains true that to have glimpses of the highest 
good and fail of its attainment may well land you in a worse 
mess than anything normal people can experience. That is 
why Christ regards the admirable and necessary Pharisees as 
'whited sepulchres'; why the fine artist may yet be an 
intolerable person; and why conversely Nietzsche is 
found to interlace his idealism with satanic phrases. It may 
indeed be necessary, in thought at least, to work through 
the evil, as Hamlet is shown working through it, indeed 
perhaps even in some mysterious fashion taking the responsi 
bility of crime on himself in an impossible situation. The 
beyond-ethic problem cannot be simple. True, we can 
change the meaning of our words. We can say, and it is 
indeed true, that Hamlet is good throughout; that his 
faults (bitterness, disgust, cruelty, unjust murders) are 
forced on him by a bad society, are reflections of it and 
therefore not properly faults. But, from that standpoint, we 
can say as much for most wrongdoers; they are indeed, to a 
profound judgement, likely enough to be the superiors 
of their more normal and less adventurous brethren. But, 
whilst we use words in their usual sense, we must surely 
see guilt in Hamlet's behaviour; a guilt directly related 
to the inadequacy of his good. He cannot take the final 
step. 

He is himself strongly, at this point, aware of his own 
limitations, as his soliloquy after meeting Fortinbras* captain 
shows (rv. iv. 32-66). He is, too, aware that it is less a line 
of action than a state of being that is at issue (cp. Pope's 
'His (i.e. faith) can't be wrong whose life is in the right' and 
Shelley's 'Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes' 
at Prometheus Unbound y in. iv. 150): 

Rightly to be great 
Is not to stir without great argument, 
"Butgrraf/y to find quarrel in a straw 
When honour's at the stake. (iv. iv. 53) 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 317 

Hamlet here sees the futility of Fortinbras' enterprise, yet 
admires his soul-state. He provisionally accepts the Renais 
sance values of 'honour 7 and 'divine ambition', admiring the 
'delicate and tender prince* so inflated by immediate life in 
terms ^of 'honour* (to the Renaissance mind a mediator, a 
lightning-conductor, of forces beyond commonsense) that 
he 'makes mouths at the invisible event' and willingly risks 
wholesale slaughter ('fortune, death and danger') for a mere 
'fantasy'. Fortinbras 7 lively being exists beyond the life- 
death antinomy; and it is true that many a death-daring 
soldier may be nearer the superman status than many an 
artist. Hamlet certainly regards Fortinbras' actions as pos 
sibly true expressions of God's purpose: 

Sure, He that made us with such large discourse, 

Looking before and after, gave us not 

That capability and god-like reason 

To fust in us unused ... (iv. iv. 36) 

When Hamlet acknowledges that 'incitements of my reason 
and my blood' impel him to a revenge which he admits is 
perfectly easy, 'reason 7 covers imagination and intuition; 
it is wisdom, finest apprehension fcp. 'in apprehension, how 
like a god' at n. ii. 326). 1 As against this we have Hamlet's 
own 'thinking too precisely on the event 7 (i.e. on the out 
come), which has only 'one part wisdom and ever three parts 
coward' (cp. 'conscience does make cowards of us all* and 
'pale cast of thought 7 at in. i. 83-5). Through the concept of 
'honour* the Renaissance made its own terms with the 
religion-war antinomy; 'honour* was at once religion and 
a 'way* in the Gospel and Confucian sense. So Hamlet, who 
is a Renaissance gentleman, sees to his 'shame* 

The imminent death of twenty thousand men 

That for a fantasy and trick of fame 

Go to their graves like beds . . . (iv. iv. 60) 

Hamlet is not consciously beyond the current valuations 
of Renaissance society. To him Fortinbras is in a state of 
grace. 

1 See my 'Notes on the Text of 7/W*/*, Note B. 



3l8 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

III 

In my former essays I showed how Hamlet's macabre 
originality is contrasted with the hum-drum world of 
Polonius' advice to Laertes and the King's efficiency arrd 
general importance as King; on which I might have quoted 
Rosencrantz' explicit and important statement: 

The single and peculiar life is bound 

Witt all the strength and armour of the mind 

To keep itself from noyance; but much more 

That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest 

The lives of many. The cease of majesty 

Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw 

What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel, 

Filed on the summit of the highest mount, 

To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things 

Are mortis'd and adjoin'd; which, when it falls, 

Each small annexment, petty consequence, 

Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone 

Did the king sigh, but with a general groan. (in. iii. 1 1) 

This fine speech, in the style of Troilus and Cressida, cannot 
be written off as sheer flattery: certainly no Elizabethan 
would have understood it as such. I have also shown (in my 
essay 'Rose of May* in The Imperial Theme) how, when 
Hamlet's stock is at its lowest after sparing the King (in 
hopes of his greater damnation), 1 murdering Polonius, tor 
menting his mother and shocking everyone with his grue 
some speeches on death, the dramatist ranges against him all 
the conventional values : Fortinbras' army, Ophelia's pathetic 
madness and flowery death, the King's kindly phrases and 
royal deportment, Laertes' avenging ardour; whilst especially 
noting the King's crisp dialogue with Laertes on the latter's 
entry, suggesting that they can do business since they speak 
the same language, are of the same world; and here we have 
another at first sight superfluous scene that demands our 
present attention. 

I refer to the King's unnecessarily elaborated discussion 
with Laertes concerning the Norman, Lamond, and his 
excelling horsemanship: 

* Hamlet** thought* here, by piuhing revenge to its logical and hateful conclusion, 
make an ironical comment on the nature of revenge as such. 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 319 

King. Two months since 

Here was a gentleman of Normandy : 

I've seen myself, and served against, the French, 

And they can well on horseback ; but this gallant 

Had witchcraft in't ; he grew unto his seat, 

And to such wondrous doing brought his horse, 

As he had been incorps'd and demi-natur'd 

With the brave beast. So far he topp'd my thought, 

That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks, 

Come short of what he did. 
Laertes. A Norman was't ? 
King. A Norman. 
Laertes. Upon my life, Lamond. 
King. The very same. 
Laertes. I know him well; he is the brooch indeed 

And gem of all the nation. 
King. He made confession of you ; 

And gave you such a masterly report 

For art and exercise in your defence . . . (iv. vii. 81) 

Observe here the characterizing of Lamond's horsemanship 
as a perfect unity, a magical thing beyond technique which 
baffles all attempts at definition. It is an athletic analogue 
to Hamlet's speech to the Players; and both suggest, as does 
'style' in any game or art, a prefiguring of some potentiality 
in life. We may recall young Harry's horsemanship des 
cribed in angelic terms. 

Now the King and Laertes enjoy a world of accepted 
values from which Hamlet is cut oft: or we can say that they, 
like Fortinbras, make the contact through 'honour' and 
horsemanship that Hamlet seeks through reverie and art. 
His ghost-converse has jerked Hamlet beyond the world of 
military ambition, though he is himself a good fencer (iv. 
vii. 103; v. ii. 220) and might have been a good soldier 
(v. ii. 411); beyond court life, codes of honour, pleasure in 
travel (like Laertes'). So, after the grirn middle action and its 
talk of worms and death, our contrasting series of bright, 
life-charged incidents reaches a climax in this pure dialogue 
of club-room conversation, the quintessence of healthy- 
mindedness. This is the wider world (suggested by the name 
Lamond) beyond the prison ('Denmark's a prison', ii. ii. 253) 
of thought, from which Hamlet's introspective and idealistic 
agony shuts him. The King and Laertes have almost for 
gotten, for a moment, the occasion, the King expanding his 



32O HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

description quite unnecessarily. The two are happy in 
recognition of their own world reflected in each other. It is a 
relief to the audience; its lucid contemporary realism gives 
a reference to the whole play, it forms an apt preliminary 
to what follows. For soon we return to Hamlet again in a 
graveyard; from noble action to suicide and damnation (in 
the Priest's speech, v. i. 24860), the balanced opposites 
of Hamlet's soliloquy; from the fine flowers of chivalry and 
courtesy to the skull. 

Hamlet's sea-adventures (which I have previously com 
pared to Stavrogin's voyage into the far north) may be 
allowed (though the text itself gives no explicit warrant for it) 
to serve vaguely some symbolic purpose : certainly he comes 
back a subtly changed man. His graveyard meditations show 
a new repose. True, he is thinking of death and that is easy 
stuff for him; it is the more complex business of life that gets 
him down. However, his words on Yorick show perhaps his 
only words in the play of really convincing love. Though 
this repose is temporarily shattered by his tussle with Laertes, 
it returns in his dialogue with Horatio and his banter it is 
no worse, a mild, good-natured ragging of Osric. Here, as 
in the graveyard, there is a vein of refined, suave, courtly 
satire to be distinguished from his earlier disgust: he is 
above his antipathies. 

We are approaching the play's conclusion. How should 
we ourselves, if we had the choice, end it? Were Hamlet to 
rouse himself and, imitating Laertes and Fortinbras, prove 
active for immediate revenge, we should say that here was a 
satisfying melodrama, if no more. If he were to remain bitter 
like Timon and embrace a tragic end, we should approve the 
artistic logic. Were he to show signs of developing the magic 
powers of a Prospero, we should note a too-rapid develop 
ment of his mystic propensities, but might accept the philo 
sophic implications, whilst taking pleasure in seeing the 
student prove a match for the politician. If he returned with 
a sense of artistic superiority, washed his hands of the whole 
nasty business and confined himself to writing a Ph.D. 
thesis at Wittenberg on satiric literature; or, better still, set 
himself to compose explosive dramas calculated to terrify 
all the kings of Europe, we, to-day, should be very pleased 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

with him indeed. Some of us, of religious leanings, might 
like him to turn Christian, take the load of evil on himself, 
transmute it in silent endurance and lend all his efforts to 
creating peace: such is the solution which Shakespeare 
appears to survey in Measure for Measure. But he does none 
of these. Instead, he accepts the wager and, in obedience 
to his mother's advice, proceeds to offer Laertes an official 
apology (probably for both the murder of Polonius and his 
graveyard attack), even going so far as to confess, in all 
seriousness and at great length (v. ii. 239-58), that he has 
been sadly afflicted with madness. Nothing could more 
clearly support my earlier contention that Hamlet is, or has 
been, in relation to his society, thoroughly abnormal and 
dangerous. What has happened? Hamlet has himself 
realized this. He has always admitted, though instinctively 
untuned to them, the courtly values of his society. Here, 
without somehow ceasing to be himself, he respects, 
outwardly at least, the people he has hitherto scorned. 
Laertes answers with a provisional acceptance of the apology, 
whilst making some highly technical reservations concerning 
the need to hand over the case to *elder masters of known 
honour* (v. ii. 262) before a final commitment 'Honour', 
with its manifold technicalities, bulks large; and Hamlet, 
one feels, subscribes, even contributes, to the dominating 
courtliness. But now, as never before, he calmly and confi 
dently means to execute the Ghost's command: 'The interim 
is mine* (v. ii. 73). 

On his return, Hamlet's words witness a new poise. His 
manners too have changed. Social conventions are a ritual 
to which man submits his personal instincts; they are a way 
of attuning one to necessities beyond one's conscious 
egotism. They are a kind of acting, an attempt if not to 
live at least to express something of the artistic grace and 
balance. Thus Hamlet's words on Osric are, though satiric, 
yet courtly. Hearing of his mother's advice that he use some 
'gentle entertainment' to Laertes, he answers: *She well 
instructs me* (v. ii. 2 1 8). His letter to the King (iv. vii. 42) 
showed perhaps a certain irony ('High and mighty', 'beg 
leave to see your kingly eyes') ; but his use later of 'your 
Grace* (v. ii. 275) rings true; so does his instinctive 'good 



322 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

Madam* (v. ii. 304) to the Queen during the fencing. The 
stage tradition of elaborate salutes to the throne before the 
match is therefore sound. Our chief persons enter on this 
last occasion in a ritualistic, one might almost say a dreamlike, 
state, as though half-consciously submitting their quarrel to 
some higher court of appeal. To each other, they are polite; 
the harmonious quality of their engagements is preluded by 
Hamlet's and Laertes* embracing of friendship under the 
King's personal direction, with the stately occasion marked 
by the King's signals of drum and cannon. True, all these 
effects, including Hamlet's manners, are superficial, since on 
both sides hostility lurks beneath; but that is, precisely, the 
whole point of manners; and it is expressly this super 
ficiality, this acted conventionality, that is here so impor 
tant, for only within its frame can a conclusion be reached. 
Hamlet is at last willing to stop being profound. The 'time' 
is no longer 'out of joint'; a relation has been established. 

What, on Hamlet's side, does this mean ? He has attained 
humility before his society, the world as it is ; that is, there 
fore, before the King as King. Surely the reader has been 
struck, during our talk of beyond-ethic possibilities and 
compulsions, by the thought that, failing a kingdom of 
heaven on earth, morals are an essential? Law and order 
must be preserved. The second-best is needed to avoid 
disaster. But Hamlet has pushed beyond the second-best; 
and what is he to do? What are others, such as he, Nietz- 
scheans, to do ? Art and reverie are not enough. Is there not 
a second-best for them to live by? There is. It is simple. 
It is love; love of a very simple and realistic kind; a love 
which is humility before not God's ideal for the race but 
God's human race as it is, in one's own time and place. 
Hamlet has somehow reached it and hence his new courtesy 
before men and acceptance before God: 

Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a 
sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come ; if it be not to come, it will be 
now ; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man 
has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes ? Let be. 

(V.ii.2 3 2) 

Hamlet has accepted not only his surroundings, but himself. 
We may suppose that he now knows himself neither saint 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED 323 

nor soldier, but a Renaissance gentleman of finely tuned 
sensibility; and that is saying a lot. He now knows intuitively 
that he will do the work before him; and mark what happens. 
As soon as he attains this state of being, the contact formerly 
missing is at once established and everything falls into line for 
him. The actual duel sums up, as I have shown elsewhere, 
the play's general quality of indecision and oscillation, of 
insecure balance remember the importance of our balanced 
opposites in Hamlet's reverie and the stress on balance in 
the address to the Players of actions returned *on the 
inventors' heads' (v. ii. 399), in sharp and significant play; 
it is at once ritual and symbol. Then Hamlet gets his one 
perfect opportunity: first, he catches the King at a moment 
of extreme and patent crime always his desire with 
victims, dead and dying, littered all around; second, the 
King is accused in public by someone else; thirdly Hamlet 
has himself been worked up to sudden, instinctive action, 
which he has always found easy; and lastly he is already, and 
knows it, on the brink of that 'felicity* (v. ii. 36 1) of death to 
which he has long been more attuned than to life. There is 
thus a suicidal quality in his revenge, which recalls the blend 
of suicide and fine action in his soliloquy. By a pretty irony 
the King's plot has been developed to make Hamlet's 
action easy and inevitable. Hamlet has won this success 
by humility and acceptance. In his own, Renaissance, terms, 
he has attained to his Kingdom of Heaven and all the 
rest is at once added: *To be, or not to be: that is the 
question'. 

So we work up to the formal conclusion; the dead bodies, 
Hamlet on the throne, prince now among the dead; the new 
life in Fortinbras, military and young; and between, as 
mediator, Horatio. This formality, together with the effect 
here and earlier (at i. iv. 6) of sounds, I have discussed in 
my Principles of Shakespearian Production. 

IV 

It is true that this conclusion is not one which an age that 
regards Henry Fas a pot-boiler and Henry W//as an enigma 

11 ^ J"1 * j 1 J. T l^.l!^.<. *l*j**> * *0 T*V*%J"} 



will most readily appreciate; but I believe that it is good for 



324 HAMLET RECONSIDERED 

us to observe it. We must remember that the courtly values 
of the Renaissance touched the hem at least of religion, as 
that text-book of contemporary idealism, Castiglione's // 
Cortegiano, shows. Their importance in Hamlet as a standard 
of reference is clear from Ophelia's speech attributing to 
Hamlet "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, 
sword* (in. i. 1 60). In its conclusion, moreover, Hamlet 
only the more clearly shows itself, to be, what it is generally 
supposed, the hub and pivot of Shakespeare's whole work in 
its massed direction: for both the Duke in Measure for 
Measure and Prospero return finally to take up their ducal 
responsibilities, and Shakespeare himself concludes his 
great sequence of more personal works with the nationalistic 
and ritualistic Henry Fill. 

Fortinbras dominates at the end, as he did in Horatio's 
early speech. 1 The psychological action is framed in steel 
and given a warrior setting: such is the background for 
the working out of some hints, both in Hamlet's unease and 
Claudius' preference of diplomacy to warfare (in his dealings 
with Fortinbras), of the beyond-warrior integration. Hints : 
for the greatest drama can offer no more. For what is 
involved? No less than the attempt to lift the old revenge- 
theme, rooted in drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill, rooted 
too in our ways of life, in our courts of justice and inter 
national relationships, indeed, in the very structure of our 
thought, beyond its stark oppositions; to heave over human 
affairs from the backward time-consciousness of Nietzsche's 
'avenging mind' into the creative inflow. Such an attempt 
involves finally the will to fuse Church and State, the 
Sermon on the Mount with international action; it is a will 
towards the Nietzschean synthesis, Ibsen's 'Third Empire'. 
This troubled theme is, as in Aeschylus, pushed to a ritualis 
tic close; raised, that is, from intellect to life, from thought 
to being, and there we must leave it. 

That these deeper issues were not planned out by Shake 
speare is likely enough; it is probable that he could not have 
planned them. The poet, as such, does not think thoughts; 

1 The importance of Fortinfaras' various entries has been neatly emphasized by Mr. 
Francis Berry in Tovttg Fortinbras (Life and Letters, February 1947). See also Mr. Berry's 
poem The Rival Princes in The GaQ&psng Centaur (1952). 



HAMLET RECONSIDERED (1947) 325 

he makes them ; though it may be for us to think the thoughts 
which he has made. The meanings here discussed are not 
insisted on by the poetry; they emerge only to a sensitive 
and listening enquiry. They are rather suggested than said. 
But that is no reason why we, with due care, should not 
proceed to say them: it is our business to say them. 

ADDITIONAL NOTE (1948) 

My reading of 'To be or not to be* has important analogies in Ibsen. Falk, 
the poet in Love's Comedy, is a Hamlet-figure who discards poetry for action, 
aiming to 'live' poetry, to 'be* rather than to 'write'. Peer Gynt studies a super 
ficial self-realization. Variations on 'Be thyself are played by or with reference 
to the Troll King, the Boyg, the Sphinx (who holds the answer to man's 
'enigma* since 'he is himself), the drowning Cook, the Priest (in his Grave 
yard sermon), the Button Moulder and the Thin Person (or Devil) ; and con 
tinually by Peer, whose philosophy of the 'Gyntish self* occurs at iv. i. The 
true self, or being, is beyond ethic : wickedness may be a better qualification 
than nonentity and Peer tries to convict himself of crime to escape dissolution 
(v. vii; x). Brand is even more incisive, concentrating on wholeness of being, 
on 'all or nothing* : 

To be seems worthy no man's strife ; 

To breathe is still your best endeavour. (i.) 

Compare Hamlet's 

What is a man 

If his chief good and market of his time 

Be but to sleep and feed? (iv. iv. 33) 

Ibsen*s life-work may, like Shakespeare's and Nietzsche's, be discussed, if not 
defined, in terms of 'self-realization*. More : this quest for integration, of man 
or society, is the central drive of Western drama. 



APPENDIX 

TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

(1947) 

NOTE A 

HORATIO'S SPEECH ON ANCIENT ROME 

Hamlet, i. i. 113-26 

'TpHE investigations of historical scholarship have of late done much to 
A increase our knowledge of the Elizabethan age. They have also done 
something to clarify the problems posed by Shakespeare's work in general and 
his text in particular; but here they have, I think, done less than is usually 
supposed. Both popular and scholarly editions appear nowadays to take delight 
in departing from what had almost become the traditional and accepted read 
ings ; and in these notes I shall discuss a couple of important passages in Hamlet 
that have, it would seem, suffered from an over-enthusiastic enquiry. Here I 
must cross swords with the leading textual editor of our day, whose labours 
for the New Cambridge Shakespeare have met with so wide a popularity and 
so just an approbation. Many of the questions raised by Professor Dover 
Wilson's various introductions, emendations and notes I am incompetent to 
discuss; but sometimes I may be forgiven for feeling that the uninformed 
student can steady himself on ground that quivers dangerously beneath the 
tread of scholarship. 

Directly before the Ghost's second entry in the opening scene of Hamlet 
Horatio recalls (i. i. 1 13) the portents that preceded the assassination of Julius 
Cat sari 

In the most high and palmy state of Rome, 

A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, 

The graves stood tenandess and the sheeted dead 

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets. 

As stan with trains vffre, and dews of blood, 

Disasters in the sun\ and the moist star 

Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands 

Was sick, almost to Doomsday, with eclipse. 

And even the like precurse of fierce events, 

As harbingers preceding still the fates 

And prologue to the omen coming on, 

Have heaven and earth together demonstrated 

Unto our climatures and countrymen 

But soft ! Behold ! Lo ! where it comes again. 

It will be clear that the italicized words are unsatisfactory; syntactically, they 
appear to constitute an adjectival phrase without its noun. It has sometimes 
been supposed that a line has been dropped ; which would, very easily, account 
for the grammatical hiatus. There is, however, a tendency to expect of an 
editor more than is humanly possible : given a *crux*, he has to solve it. But 

326 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 327 

sorely the text may be wrong; as a matter of hard fact, a line may have been 
dropped ; and if so, nothing can be done about it, beyond composing a satis 
fying substitute. 

Professor Dover Wilson is less timid. He elects to transfer bodily the four 
lines 'As stars . . . eclipse* to the end, so that his text reads : 

In the most high and palmy state of Rome, 

A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, 

The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead 

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets, 

And even the like precurse of fierce events, 

As harbingers preceding still the fates 

And prologue to the omen coming on, 

Have heaven and earth together demonstrated 

Unto our climatures and countrymen, 

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, 

Disasters in the sun ; and the moist star, 

Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands, 

Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. 

But soft ! Behold ! Lo ! where it comes again . . . 

There, then, are our alternatives. 

I submit that this rearrangement cannot be allowed. I am willing enough 
to believe, since so high an authority is satisfied, that such an error could have 
been perpetrated by the compositor; I base my judgement on other considera 
tions, on the words themselves. Let us briefly attempt simple paraphrases of 
the two variants. 

The first says : *A little before Julius Caesar died, the graves opened and the 
dead walked the streets; there were also portents in the skies, such as comets, 
bloody rain, sun-spots and an eclipse of the moon. Now portents just like these 
in the sky and on the earth have appeared to our own people in the past. But 
here it comes again !' 

Let us turn to the second version. This reads : 'A little before Julius Caesar 
died, the graves opened and the dead walked the streets. Now portents just 
like these in the sky and on the earth have appeared to our own people in the 
past ; such as comets, bloody rain, sun-spots and an eclipse of the moon But 
here it comes again !' 

The structure of meaning is ruined. The phrase 'heaven and earth together* 
makes no proper sense when so far the ghosts alone have been mentioned ; nor 
is it properly amplified by the following reference to sky-portents only. Nor is 
it reasonable to say, in effect, *We have known similar things to ghosts, such as 
comets and eclipses* ; they are not similar enough. Finally the past *was* fol 
lowing the perfect 'have demonstrated* jars the syntax. 

How comes it that such an authority as Professor Dover Wilson puts for 
ward a theory so easily shown to be unsatisfactory ? Here is his statement : 

'My rearrangement, following a suggestion by Gerald Massey (Secret 
Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1872, sup. p. 46), who notes that lunar 
eclipses are not mentioned in Plutarch, restores the sense. 7 

{Hamlet, New Cambridge Shakespeare, p. 144) 



328 TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

There Is here a serious error. Lunar eclipses cannot be found in Plutarch, 
though the sun is dimmed ; but neither can one find 'stars with trains of fire' 
or 'dews of blood* in Plutarch, both of which are referred to in Julius Caesar. 
Mr. Kenneth Muir has now (in Notts & Queries, 7 February, 1948) very 
helpfully taken the matter in hand and concludes that Shakespeare seems to 
have used two or more classical sources (from Vergil, Ovid, Lucan and 
Plutarch) in both Julius Caesar and Hamlet, with the result that neither solar 
nor lunar disturbances can be called intruders in Shakespeare's Rome, since the 
sun is eclipsed in Vergil and Lucan and dimmed in Ovid and Plutarch, and 
the moon has blood-spots in Ovid (all with reference to Julius Caesar's death)* 
Consequently, no good reason exists for lifting these portents, together with 
the comets and bloody rain (which are in Ovid, Lucan and Julius Caesar), to 
a non-Roman context. 

What of this other context? In reference to the lines 'As stars . . . eclipse* 
we have (pp. 144-6) the following note : 

Shakespeare is referring to contemporary events. Solar eclipses were 
visible in England on February 25, 1598, July 10, 1600 and December 
24, 1601; and lunar ones on February n and August 6, 1598 (and 
again in November 1603). The year 1 598 was thus rich in eclipses . . . 

Astrologers, we are told, predicted that the eclipse of July 1600 pointed to an 
event somewhere between January 20, 1601 and July 12, 1603; so that 
Essex' rising was considered a fulfilment of the omen. Hence, we are to sup 
pose, Horatio's words : 'And even the like . . . countrymen*. 

This suggestion is, surely, unacceptable. Horatio and the others are dis 
cussing the reason for the Ghost's appearance. The speech has dear dramatic 
point. He says such things have been known to happen before to his own 
countrymen. How can we suppose him to step out of his dramatic context 
and address the audience with the implied remark: 'Our own recent portents 
during the reign of Elizabeth have been fulfilled by Essex* rebellion' ? This is 
a tense, opening, scene; it is atmospherically the most important Ghost scene 
in Shakespeare ; everything depends on riveting the audience's attention and 
keeping it riveted. The Ghost has appeared once, for a moment or two only. 
We await its return. Can the dramatist intend to switch our thoughts to our 
; own pkce and time immediately before the Ghost's second appearance ? And 
does not the other, correct, version serve admirably to whet our attention for 
this second entrance? 

It might be argued that we could leave England out of it; that Shakespeare, 
remembering contemporary Elizabethan portents, offers tnem to Horatio, 
who may then be supposed to refer to contemporary Danish portents. But 
were the portents contemporary, they would not easily fit Horatio's argument. 
To what could they refer? Not very well to the old King's death, since this 
could not serve as a studied comparison, an analogy, to the present portent, 
which is the old King himself. They would themselves have to be grouped 
with the present portent as possible precursors of an unknown future : it would 
not be easy to be certain that they were fulfilled already. But this ruins the 
point of the comparison. What Horatio means is : 'Such portents as this we 
have just seen have regularly proved to be true warnings in the past*. *Har- 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 329 

bingers preceding still the fates' means 'forerunners with a consistent regularity 
time and again ('still') having foreshadowed what was later found to happen*. 
If it means less than that there is little point in the speech. It cannot therefore 
refer to a single event such as Essex* rebellion. This is made fairly clear by the 
plural 'fierce events' and quite clear by the plural 'climatures', the Utter indi 
cating, with a certain intentional vagueness, various countries and almost cer 
tainly various occasions. How many such 'fierce events' could Horatio possibly 
have known prophesied and later fulfilled in his own life-time ? No. The lines 
do not refer to contemporary or recent events in either Elizabethan England 
or Horatio's Denmark. The most we can possibly concede is that recent 
portents in England may have helped Shakespeare to devise such a speech ; but 
in saying that we have said nothing. 

Nor can we leave these arguments with so vague an acquiescence, since it is 
the contemporary reference that prompts Professor Dover Wilson to transfer 
the four lines. Lunar eclipses do not fit ancient Rome (though they are, roughly, 
covered by one of Shakespeare's probable sources); they do fit the year 
1 598 ; therefore the lines containing the lunar reference must be taken from 
their Roman context and pkced in a context of contemporary reference. That 
is the argument. 'Climatures and countrymen' are to mean 'England and 
Englishmen.* That, we have seen, is dramatically impossible, and we are 
forced to suppose Shakespeare to be referring to ancient events in Denmark. 
Since he knows little of Danish legends, he allows them an eclipse of the moon 
as well as supplying them with comets, bloody rain (both taken from Julius 
Caesar or its Roman sources) and sun-spots. But if Shakespeare can so freely 
invent Danish portents, why may he not add just one lunar eclipse to those 
of ancient Rome? On Professor Dover Wilson's showing lunar eclipses may 
well have been in his mind, since he had himself recently seen one, 

But it is not really necessary to suppose such an influence at work. The moon 
plays a part in Shakespeare's disorder-symbolisms (drawn at first from legendary 
sources) as early as Richard 77, where we hear that *the pale-faced moon looks 
bloody on the earth* (n. iv. 10) and King John, with its description of 
'five moons' in the sky (iv. ii. 182). In Sonnet xxxv we have 'clouds and 
eclipses stain both moon and sun'. As his work matures such portents become 
a normal literary and dramatic stock-in-trade, always ready for a suitable 
occasion, and with the moon regularly playing its part, as in Othello's 

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse 
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe 
Should yawn at alteration. (v. ii. 98) 

And 

It is the very error of the moon; 

She comes more near the earth than she was wont, 

And makes men mad. (v. ii. 107) 

The moon is important in Meebetk in Hecate's speech (m. v. 23) and in the 
Weird Sisters' 

. . . slips of yew 
Slhrer'd in the moon's eclipse. (iv. i. 27) 



330 TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

The witch Sycorax in TAe Tempest was 

one so strong 

That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs, 

And deal in her command, without her power. (v. i. 269) 

The moon plays a prominent part in the superstitions and folk-lore of all ages. 
In A Midsummer-Nights Dream we hear how the moon, called as in Hamlet 
the 'governess of floods', 

Pale in her anger, washes all the air 

That rheumatic diseases do abound. (n. i. 103) 

This fairy pky is, indeed, throughout dominated by thoughts of the moon. 
Of course, sometimes contemporary events may be indicated, as in Sonnet 
cvn, with moon = Queen Elizabeth : 

The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endur'd 

And the sad augers mock their own presage . . . 

We could, perhaps, admit a possible undertone of contemporary reference in 
Gloucester's speech beginning: 

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us ... 

(King Lear, i. ii. 1 1 5) 

This speech, together with Edmund's following soliloquy of ironic comment, 
could conceivably be spoken direct to the audience without altogether dis 
turbing dramatic propriety. Both are in the nature of a generalized com 
mentary, chorus-work; but to read anything similar into Horatio's lines is 
impossible. The dramatic tension just snaps. 

Besides, is it not extremely rash to read 'disasters in the sun* as 'eclipses' ? 
'Disasters* may mean just 'portents'. If it means 'sun-spots', then Shakespeare 
has, in his use of sources, either criss-crossed spots and eclipse with reference 
to sun and moon in a manner natural to poetic composition (see my note on 
p. 343) ; or borrowed sun-spots (as weather-signs) from a Vergilian passage 
preceding the portents (Georgia, i. 441). Whatever the meaning, the vague 
word more nearly suggests Shakespeare's Roman sources than an actual and 
recent eclipse; and there is accordingly little enough to suggest a contemporary 
reference. 

Again, can we afford to remove the comets and bloody rain from Rome ? 
Both occur in Julius Caesar. Remember Calphurnia's 

When beggars die there are no comets seen: 

The Heavens themselves bkze forth the death of princes . . . 

(n. ii. 30) 
And Casca's 

But never till to-night, never till now, 

Did I go through a tempest dropping fire ... (i. iii. 9) 

And again Calphurnia's 

A lioness hath whelped in the streets, 

And graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead ; 

Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds, 

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war, 

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol. (n. ii. 17) 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 33 I 

Here the graves opening and bloody rain are juxtaposed, exactly as in Horatio's 
speech : what right have we to separate them ? Shakespeare's imagination was 
keenly impressed by these peculiarly fantastic horrors preceding Julius Caesar's 
death; and for this very reason Horatio chooses for his argument this to a 
Renaissance poet all but central act in history. Is it likely that he would be 
content to leave the great occasion with no more than a reference to ghosts, 
while transferring its quite exceptional event of bloody rain to Denmark ? Is 
he not bound here to refer to these Roman portents properly ? Does he not in 
fact do so ? Why, then, transfer the lines and rob the description of its impact ? 

The lunar eclipse may not be in Julius Caesar \ but neither did bloody rain 
fall on Elizabethan Engknd. One tiny imprecision if such indeed it can be 
called- must not be removed to make way for a large discrepancy. Notice that, 
to avoid any too dangerous an exactitude, the later portents are left vague : the 
same sort of thing, we are told, has been seen in the heavens and upon earth 
by our people ; that is all. 

What, then, is our conclusion ? That a line has been dropped. We have no 
choice but to suppose, or compose, the missing link. Here is a reasonable 
substitute: 'Distemper'd portents quartered in the skies'. The speech now 
reads: 

In the most high and palmy state of Rome, 
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, 
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead 
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets ; 
Distemper'd portents quarter'd in the skies 
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood, 
Disasters in the sun ; and the moist star 
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands 
Was sick, almost to Doomsday, with eclipse. 

The lines run smoothly enough. 

It has been my purpose here to save a notable speech from misunderstand- 
ing. I hope, too, that my arguments may serve to suggest that historical scholar 
ship has its own, peculiar, dangers. It is often asserted that our greater writers 
must be read in the light of their particular periods; that historical research 
should be brought to the illumination of poetry and the settling of textual 
difficulties. It has for long been my aim to counsel a different course ; to assert 
the paramount necessity of reading any great writer primarily in the light 
which he himself generates. Whatever sources or influences lie behind the 
imaginative composition, that composition is only of highest worth in so far as 
it has assimilated and transmuted those sources and influences. It stands inde 
pendently of its origin ; and if we forget that we- end by ignoring the very 
quality in the work which justifies our anxious attention. 



33^ TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

NOTE B 
HAMLET'S SPEECH ON MAN 

(n. iL 323-9) 

many years now the academic world has been seriously divided on 
punctuation of this important passage. I have myself contributed to 
the discussion, directly or indirectly, in various letters to The Times Literary 
Supplement (17 January, 1929; 10 September, 1931; 14 September and 
26 October, 1946); whilst also further reprinting and developing the sub 
stance of earlier letters in The Imperial Theme (p. 332) and The Shakespearian 
Tempest (App. A, 'The Shakespearian Aviary 1 , pp. 308-19). My present note 
will unavoidably repeat some of my already published material ; but the con 
troversy is as keen as ever, and my own arguments have as yet met with little 
obvious response. My letter of 14 September, 1946, raised one, violent, reply 
which may be read as symptomatic of the reaction, in many quarters, to what 
is admittedly a new approach. It appears therefore necessary to return once 
more to the defence. 

Our choice lies between the punctuation of the Folio and that of the Second 
Quarto. Here are the two possible readings, both modernized for my purpose : 

(i) The Folio: 

What a piece of work is a man ! How noble in reason ; how infinite in 
faculty; in form and moving, how express and admirable; in action how 
like an angel; in apprehension how like a god ! 

(ii) The Quarto: 

What a piece of work is a man ! How noble in reason; how infinite in 
faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how 
like an angel in apprehension ; how like a god ! 

The Folio reading is, as it were, traditional ; it will be found in any ordinary 
modern, or last century, text; but Professor Dover Wilson, in his important 
and influential edition in the New Cambridge Shakespeare, strongly supports 
the Quarto. Actors nowadays tend to use the Quarto reading and it is likely 
that future editors will do likewise. 

Professor Peter Alexander, whose Shakespearian investigations have always 
proved most significant, supports what may be called the 'Folio' reading, 
whilst arguing that both texts are correct, but that the Quarto pointing, in its 
original form, bore a significance nowadays misunderstood, the intended sense 
being that of the Folio. To avoid the subtleties involved in Professor Alexander's 
theory, ably set forth in his British Academy Lecture 'Shakespeare's Punctua 
tion', I have, for my purposes, modernized both quotations, which I shall 
refer to simply as 'Folio* and 'Quarto'. My purpose here is once again to 
defend the Folio. 

First, I cannot see that 'infinite', as the Quarto would have it, can properly 
apply to the singular 'form', nor to 'moving' ; whereas it fits 'faculty' perfectly. 
As for the Folio *in form and moving, how express and admirable', the balanced 
phraseology precisely relates 'express' to 'form* and 'admirable' to 'moving' ; 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 333 

whereas the Quarto refers 'express* directly to the vigorous word 'action*. 
Now I suggest that 'express* is most unlikely to cohabit with 'action'. Professor 
Dover Wilson takes it to mean 'direct and purposive* (Hamlet, p. 176). Are 
there Shakespearian analogies for such a use? Surely the adjective carries a 
sense far nearer to that implied by its derivation, a sense still held by the verb, 
denoting an imprint, static rather than dynamic, as at Paradise Lost, vn, 527, 
where man, in a most significant phrase, is said to have been created *in the 
image of God express* (cp. also Paradise Lost, vm, 440-1 and x. 67). Milton's 
use suggests its natural affinities with such a concept as 'form*; indeed, 'form* 
and 'pressure* occur together in Hamlet m direct reference to human behaviour 
both at i. v. 100 and, in dose association with 'feature', 'image* and 'body', at 
in. ii. 28, while 'form* is agahi used in Hamlet's highly relevant description of 
his fattier as a figure of majesty and poise at HI. iv. 60. We have Ophelia's 
'glass of fashion and the mould ^ form* at HI. i. 162 (with 'form* again at HI. i. 
1 68, in association with 'feature*). Without valour man's 'noble shape* is but 
*a form of wax* (Romeo and Juliet, HI. iii. 125). Man's physical shape is a 
kind of imprint. 'Nature's copy', we are told in Macbeth (HI. ii. 38), is 'not 
eterne*; where the reference is to man's physical being as opposed to his 
immortal soul (Shakespeare here thinking, as often elsewhere, in terms of a 
conventional dualism). The Winter's Tale has two valuable exampks: 

Behold, my lords, 

Although the print be little, the whole matter 
And copy of the father; eye, nose, lip ... (ii. iii. 97) 

Again, 

Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince; 

For she did print your royal father off 

Conceiving you. (v. i. 124) 

So, too, one must not ''coin Heaven's image in stamps that are forbid* (with 
reference to illegitimate ^kiMran, Measure for Measure, ii. iv. 46). The 



, , . . . 

metaphor has an honourable lineage: Aeschylus uses it in The Ckoephoree. We 
may also remember Morocco's 

They have in England 
A coin that bears the figure of an angel 
Stamped in gold, but that's inscnlp'd upon ; 
But here an angel in a golden bed 
Lies all within. (Tkf Merchant of Venice, it. vii. 55) 

The 'angel* of the coin is St. Michael slaying a dragon, a St. George figure. 
Angels to Shakespeare were definitely active beings; and this particular refer 
ence conveniently leads us on. 

Consider the phrases 'In action how like an angel ; in apprehension, how like 
a god. * The Quarto's 'How like an angel in apprehension* robs angel of active 
significance whilst relating it directly to a faculty for which Shakespeare's 
angels show no aptitude ; though it is this very association that Professor Dover 
Wilson regards as a support for the Quarto. Bat angels are, in Shakespeare, 
active beings, as on the coin well known to every Elizabethan expressly 



334 TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

<aDed an 'angel* because of its St. George imprint. In Shakespeare's most 
extended passages on angels, these beings are visualized as athletic, sometimes 
as riding, with a strong sense of the word's derivation (Greek angetos 
messenger ; they are messengers from God to man). Here is a neat and vivid 
example from the Balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet: 
She speaks. 

speak again, bright angel; for thou art 

As glorious to this night, being o'er my head, 

As is a winged messenger of Heaven 

Unto the white up-turned wondering eyes 

Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him, 

When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds 

And sails upon the bosom of the air. (" **. 2 5) 

The angel is explicitly Heaven's 'messenger' and is imagined as a tiding figure. 
Here is a more concrete example of riding, with 'angel' associated with 
'Mercury', the messenger of the gods (i.e. the classical equivalent to angel 5 ) : 

1 saw young Harry with his beaver on, 
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd, 
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury, 
And vaulted with such ease into his seat, 

As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds, 

To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus 

And witch the world with noble horsemanship. 

(1 Story ir,vr.l 104) 

The Dauphin's praise of his norse as a wondrous Pegasus at Henry F, HI. vii. 
11-44, is also indirectly relevant, in view of its imaginative tonings, to our 
present argument. Such impressions of aerial movement work tumultuously 
within a fiur more complex speech spoken by Macbeth, when agonized by the 
proposed murder of Duncan: 

his virtues 

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 

The deep damnation of his taking off: 

And pity, like a naked new-born babe, 

Striding the blast, or Heaven's cherubin, hors'd 

Upon the sightless couriers of the air, 

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye 

That tears shall drown the wind. (Macbeth, i. vii. 1 8) 

We have a complex of half-visualized but appallingly potent beings. The 
'angels', the allegorical 'pity* and 'Heaven's cherubin' are all closely akin ; they 
blow trumpets, ride aerial steeds, inspire emotion. The tempestuous whirl 
leaves us with a sense of most violent activity. 

These three are probably our most striking poetic passages concerning 
angels; and the angels are all active. Where in C^mbeline Jupiter descends 
riding on an eagle he is clearly functioning as an angel, that is, as a messenger 
of God to man; as is Ariel, too, at his Harpy appearance. Christian and 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 335 

classical mythology are, of course, always likely to be mixed in Shakespeare. 
We find, for example, a directly relevant passage in terms of classical deities 
only in Hamlet's description of his father: 

See what a grace was seated on this brow ; 

Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself; 

An eye like Mars to threaten and command ; 

A station like the herald Mercury 

New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; 

A combination and a form indeed 

Where every god did seem to set his seal, 

To give the world assurance of a man. (Hamlet, m. iv. 55) 

Notice how Mercury, the specifically angelic (i.e. messenger) deity, stands out 
from the others in point of visual grace, or poise, felt as one with a superbly 
executed action. Such, then, are Shakespeare's angels, culminating with Ariel 
in The Tempest, whose athleticism is positively ubiquitous. 

I cannot therefore follow Professor Dover Wilson's statement!: *To a 
thinking Elizabethan angels were discarnate spirits whose only form of action 
was "apprehension " ' ; and 'To make Hamlet compare human action to that of 
an angel is, therefore, to make him talk nonsense' (Hamlet, p. 1 76). I cannot 
help feeling that Professor Dover Wilson's great and invaluable Elizabethan 
learning has somehow here debarred him from the simple, the. unlearned, 
approach. 

It may be It has been argued that these examples do not suffice to prove 
the major issue. On principle I never consult a concordance ; but every relevant 
Shakespearian passage I know can be used in the Folio's support. Angels are 
regularly felt as beauteous and especially graceful creatures, of fine action and 
graceful poise. They may be associated with a lady, but more often suggest a 
young man; they resemble courtiers; their gifts are physical, not intellectual; 
they do not think. Here are some examples. Hamlet, seeing the Ghost, calls - 
to 'angels and ministers of grace' to 'defend' Kim, as guards (i. iv. 39); and 
repeats the thought on his second encounter, railing on 'heavenly guards 7 to 
'hover* above him in protection (HI. iv 103). They move swiftly, as mes 
sengers should, and therefore Lennox in Macbeth prays that 'some holy angef 
may 'fly' to the English court to unfold MacdufFs mission before he arrives 
(HI. vi. 45). Aristocratic 'reverence* is in Cymbeline *that angel of the world* 
(iv. ii. 248) ; that is, the mediator between God and man, a descending grace, 
the phrase growing from the philosophy of Ulysses' speech on order hi Trrihu 
and CreuiJa. Claudius prays to angels to assist his action ('bow, stubborn 
knees') in prayer, to get to work on him, to 'make assay' (Hamlet, in* iH. 69) ; 
their singing lifts Hamlet to his rest (Ham/ft, v. ii. 374); they are always 
doing something. They can sing and move at once : 

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st 

But in his motion like an angel sings, 

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins. 

(TAt Merchant ofPtMitf, v. i. 60) 

The angel is felt as both singing and moving, in serene flight. Angels are athletic, 
artistic and eminently gracious creatures. Aeneas describes the Trojans to 



336 TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

Agamemnon as people of angelic grace : 

Courtiers as free, as debonair, unarm'd, 

As bending angels; that's their fame in peace : 

But when they would seem soldiers, they have galls, 

Good arms, strong joints, true swords; and, Jove's 

accord 
Nothing so full of heart. (Troilus and Cressida, i. iii. 235) 

For 'bending angels' compare the ladies (like 'Nereides') on Cleopatra's barge 
who 'made their bends adomings* (Antony and Cleopatra, 11. ii. 216). Angels 
are, indeed, to Shakespeare very much like young Renaissance gentlemen, 
equally ready, as this Troiltu passage suggests, for the arts of either peace or 
war: the thought is that of Henry P 9 in. i. 3-17, a pky where Henry with 
'the port of Mars' (i. Pro. 6) is, like Hamlet's father (in. iv. 57), an all but 
angelic figure; and ofCymbeline, iv. ii. 171-81, where the description of the 
royal boys as both gentle and fierce is peculiarly fine. Elsewhere in Cymbeline, 




85). But the comparison applies too to the gentle, graceful, appearance of 
Imogen, dressed as a boy : 

By Jupiter, an angel! or, if not, 

Aii earthly paragon. Behold divineness 

' No elder than a 007 1 (in. vi. 42) 

The term 'angel' suggests therefore to Shakespeare both masculine strength 
and semi-feminine grace : an almost bi-sexual excellence is suggested. That is 
the point of *in action, how like an angel*. 

Whenever man moves exquisitely (we may remember Hamlet's address to 
the Players) he is angelic; when he is over-fleshly, cumbered by the heavier, 
ungracious elements, he is the reverse. The humour of Titania's love-encounter 
with Bottom in A Midsummer-Nigh? s Dream depends precisely on the con 
trast of a graceful fairy-queen and an awkward excessively corporeal (remem 
ber his name) *nan ; and hence, waked by his rude singing and seeing his 
lumbering, uncourtly, movements he is specifically wafting up and doten 
she brings out the laughter-catching : 'What angel wakes me from my flowery 
bed?' (HI. i. 135). The same contrast occurs in Measure for Measure* where 
thought of ungainly action leads on in the poet's mind directly to a contrast 
with 'angels': 

. . . but man, proud man, 

Brest in a little brief authority, 

Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd, 

His glassy essence, like an angry ape, 

Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven 

As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens, 

Would all themselves laugh mortal. 1 

{Measure for Measure, n. ii. 1 17) 
That it, laugh themtdves to death. 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 337 

A ludicrous, Caliban figure is intended, whose ungainly and uncomely actions 
appropriately raise the angels* revulsion and distress; rather as bad technique 
in a clumsy performer awakes anguish in the expert. The angels weep : they 
are very human, and here (as in our Macbeth passage quoted above) associated 
with emotion. These graceful and lively people are emotional types: bat I 
know of no instance of a Shakespearian angel thinking. 

We have seen that 'angels* may be said to resemble the bi-sexual charm of 
masculine youth. Thus when in Sonnet CXLIV the poet contrasts his fair friend 
and dark mistress as his good and bad spirits, the emphasis falls naturally on 
the young man as 'angel* 'the better angel is a man right fair* and tJie 
woman as 'spirit* ; she is called his 'bad angel' once, whereas he is called angel 
four times, within the one sonnet. The association of 'angel* with the loved 
youth is eminently natural, since angels are not only athletically assured but 
beautiful and radiant : 

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell; 

Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, 

Yet grace must still look so. (Macbeth, iv. iii. 22) 

'Brows* = face: observe the strong emphasis on appearance. Even more 
physically vivid are the 'Six Personages* of Queen Katherine*s Vision, whose 
elaborately described bending and other movements recall earlier passages, 
and whose 'bright faces* cast a 'thousand beams' like 'the sun* (Henry Fill 
iv. ii. 83-9). Angels are pre-eminently good to look on : 

Thou art like the harpy, 
Which, to betray, dost with thine angel's face, 
Seize with thine eagle's talons. (Pericles, iv, iii. 46) 

Shakespeare's angels are not, then, 'discarnate spirits' at all; and if any lingering 
doubt be left, a remark of the Duke in Measure for Measure should dispel it: 

Twice treble shame on Angelo 

To weed my vice and let his grow ! 

O what may man within him hide, 

Though angel on the outward side ! (in. ii. 291) 

There is a pun on 'Angelo' : the name is ironical, suggesting the appearamce of 
goodness. Shakespeare's angels are outwardly, not inwardly, conceived. 

In suggesting that 'to a thinking Elizabethan 1 angels were discarnate intel 
ligences, Professor Dover Wilson has his eye on Thomas Aquinas. But was 
Shakespeare a 'thinking Elizabethan* ? He was primarily a stage-poet. Now a 
poet, as we have observed before, does not think thoughts ; he rather makes 
them; though it may be our business to think the thoughts he makes. In 
making thoughts a poet may be very simple-minded, and I suggest that the 
coin called an angel had more fertilizing value for Shakespeare than all the 
labours of medieval scholasticism. However, to let that pass, there is, on Pro 
fessor Dover Wilson's own ground, more to be said. Apart from the fact that 
Shakespeare always visualizes angels as lively and beauteous young people, 
there is philosophic justification for the Folio, though, in view of our quota 
tions, this scarcely concerns us. 



33$ TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

In A Preface to Paradise Lost Mr. C. S. Lewis devotes a chapter to *The 
Mistake about Milton's Angels*. He explains that there were two main 
approaches to these matters : 

The great change of philosophic thought in that period which we call 
the Renaissance had been from Scholasticism to what contemporaries 
described as Platonic Theology. Modern Students, in the light of later 
events, are inclined to neglect this Platonic Theology in favour of what 
they regard as the first beginnings of the scientific or experimental spirit; 
but at the time this so-called 'Platonism* appeared the more important 
of the two. Now one of the points in which it differed from Scholasticism 
was this : that it t>elieved all created spirits to be corporeal. 

'Thomas Aquinas', however, 'had believed that angels were purely immaterial' 
though they could assume materiality on occasion. His angels 'could not eat' ; 
but this, says Mr. Lewis, 'is the view which Milton goes out of his way to 
controvert*. 

Now I am not arguing that Shakespeare was a Platonic Theologian in this 
sense, nor that he had ever thought seriously about the matter. I prefer merely 
to study his text, and to remember that to the popular imagination angels have 
always been visible creatures; in the Bible, in the Roman Emperor's 'Angels, 
not Angles*, in the Angels of Mons. It may, however, be worth observing that 
the poet as opposed to the philosopher must necessarily be drawn to the 
'Platonic' view, since poetry likes what is visual and concrete and eschews, if 
it does not abhor, the abstract; it is itself a continual incarnation and its spirits 
are naturally incarnate spirits. Much as I respect the learning of such justly 
eminent scholars as Professor Dover Wilson and Mr. C. S. Lewis, I maintain 
that no such learning drawn from outside the poetic world of Shakespeare 
weighs anything when balanced against that world itself. However, for those 
who wish to interpret Shakespeare in such terms, I suggest that Mr. Lewis's 
chapter which is not itself of course concerned with Shakespeare at all 
may serve, at least, to clarify the argument. 

And now for 'apprehension*. We have to choose between 'how like an 
angel in apprehension* (Quarto) and 'in apprehension how like a god' (Folio). 
But 'apprehension* is in Shakespeare a god-like rather than an angelic quality. 
It denotes the ability to grasp the mysterious, to extend consciousness beyond 
space and time, and is to be closely associated with Shakespeare's many refer 
ences to swift (i.e. intuitive or emotional) thought. Thus the 'seething brains' 
of lovers and madmen 'apprehend* more than 'cool reason' (i.e. logical, realistic 
thinking) can 'comprehend*; the contrast of 'apprehend* and 'comprehend* 
being further on directly related to 'strong imagination* as the apprehending 
faculty {A Midsummer-Nigh? s Dream, v. i. 4-22). The speaker is here scepti 
cal; but, while referring in general to 'the lunatic, the lover and the poet* as 
'of imagination all compact', he surveys a wide range of intuitive thought. 
'Apprehension* normally contains all the various potentialities of our 'imagina 
tion* : it may give birth to mysterious foreboding (Trot/us and Cressida t in. ii. 
78) ; it may be associated with wit (Much Ado about Nothing HI. iv. 67) ; it is 
to be contrasted with dullness 'If the English had any apprehension (i.e. 
imagination) they would run away* (Henry V, in. vii. 1 50) ; it can deal in evil, 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

unclean, intuitions (Othello, m, Hi. x 39). It is nevertheless man's finest faculty. 
When Gaunt urges Bolingbroke in banishment to dominate his surroundings 
as a 'wise man' by the power of imagination ('Suppose the singing birds 
musicians'), that is, in Milton's phraseology, to realize that 'the mind is its own 
place* capable of turning Hell to Heaven, Bolingbroke answers that *the 
apprehension of the good' will merely increase his suffering {Richard //, i. 
iii. 275-301). Apprehension is thus a noble, supremely human and so all but 
superhuman, attribute. When Caesar says of the world 

'tis furnish'd well with men, 
And men are flesh and blood and apprehensive . . . 

(Julius Caesar, in. i. 67) 

the word, as the context shows, means something excessively fine; what we 
should call 'spiritual'. All the stars are, he says, fire, yet one only constant; all 
men are finely made ('flesh and blood 1 ) and finely tuned ('apprehensive'); 
tuned, that is, to spheres beyond themselves; but only one, himself, remains 
steadfast and 'unassailable'. 'Apprehension* thus distinguishes man from the 
beasts; it is a spiritual, a god-like, faculty. 

Being an imaginative quality, 'apprehension* is necessarily associated with 
Shakespeare's 'swift*, that is intuitive, thought : 

But his evasion, wing'd thus swift with scorn, 
Cannot outfly our apprehensions. 

(Troths and Crcssuta, n. iii. 124) 

But here we meet a subtle difficulty. Professor Dover Wilson himself enlists 
one of Shakespeare's many swift-thought references to support the Quarto 
'How like an angel in apprehension*. He adduces Hamlet's 

Haste me to know it, that I, with wings as swift 

As meditation or the thoughts of love, 

May sweep to my revenge. (i. v. 29) 

But this is no image of an angel thinking; it is a comparison of angelic wings to 
thought; especially emotional thought. The winged being is not the thinker, 
but the thought. Here is a more concrete embodiment: 

Love's heralds should be thoughts, 
Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams, 
Driving black shadows over lowering hills : 
Therefore do nimble-pinion'd doves, draw love, 
And therefore hath the wind-swift Capid wings. 

(Romes a*J Juliet, 11. v. 4) 

Cupid is as swift as thought ; but that is not to say that Cupid thinks. Usually 
the thought concerned in these passages is of violent quality, and scarcely an 
equivalent to the graver, because more inclusive, faculty of 'apprehension'. 
Swift thought may be a matter of tragic passion, at Ante*) **A CJt*p*ir* f 
iv. vi. 35; of maddened conscience, at Trmtu s end Creuida, v. x. 29; of wit 
and mockery, at Love's Ltteur's Lest, v. ii. 262 : or of general mental distress* 



34 TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

Sit 1 Henry FI, i. v. 19. Thought as such may be considered swift, without 
further implications (as at Henry V, Pro. HI. 1-3; Pro. v, 8, 15, 23; King 
Lear, HI. ii. 4). The swiftness of love may be raised from the realm of intui 
tion to that of event. Love's passage is felt as an uncapturable lightning at A 
Midsummer-Night's Dream, \. i. 143-9 anc ^ at R meo at *d J****** " IT 9- 
The night of love's enjoyment in Trot/us and Cressida 

flies the grasps of love 
With wings more momentary-swift than thought. 

(iT.ii. 13) 

These delicate, angelic, realities are extremely difficult to control and place. 
Man responds without quite knowing what they are: 'apprehension* is his 
faculty of awareness. 

Two Shakespearian passages deliberately investigate such heightened 
psychic activity in terms of (i) drink and (ii) love. FalstafF describes the brain 
under the drink-consciousness as 'apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, 
fiery and delectable shapes* (II Henry IP, rv. iii. 107); full, that is, of angel- 
like, active, essences; itself (the brain) being 'forgetive' (cp. 'in the quick forge 
and working-house of thought*, Henry 7, v. Pro. 23), being itself in control, 
master of its shop. But the most important speech of all, singing the praise of 
love itself as highest wisdom and supreme power, is Biron's in Love's Labour's 
Lost. It is all there and closely related to poetry itself, love-born and contrasted 
with the 'slow arts' of study : 

But love, first learned in a kdy's eyes, 

Lives not alone immured in the brain : 

But, with the motion of all elements, 

Courses as swift as thought in every power, 

\nd gives to every power a double power, 

^bove their functions and their offices. (iv. iii. 327) 

So the lover's faculties become newly sensitive; his valour is Herculean; his 
artistry superb. The passage is, of course, a noble exaggeration. It is a hymn 
to a possibility, a potentiality, wherein the higher intuitions of love are fully 
incorporated and lived, so creating a superhuman life. 

Such powers necessarily elude man, but his gift of 'apprehension' at least 
makes contact with them. Apprehension is awareness of the angelic beauties in 
all their agility and grace; but even so, the thinker is not himself that agility. 
The swift being resembles, but does not accomplish, the act of thought : 

Be Mercury, set feathers to thy heels, 

And fiy like thought from them to me again. 

(King John, iv. ii. 174) 

If, then, thought be like an angel, to what shall we compare the thinker? 
Clearly God. The god, so to speak, thinks the angel. This is the very relation 
of Prospero (compare 'prosperous gods', Timon ef Athens, v. i. 188) to Ariel: 

Prospero. Come with a thought ! I thank thee Arid, come ! 
Ariel (entering) : Thy thoughts I cleave to. What's thy pleasure ? 

(The Tempest, iv. i. 164) 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 34! 

A very neat exposition of what lies behind the creation of Ariel occur? in 
Sonnets XLIV and XLV, where the poet as lover plays many variations concerning 
his own thoughts, which, like Ariel's, he sends out to his love, though, being 
himself composed partly of heavier elements than these 'present-absent*, 
space-negating, essences, he deplores his own substantiality: 

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land, 

As soon as think the place where he would be. 

But ah ! thought kills me that I am not thought . . . (XLIV) 

Again, the thinker is not the thought; the philosopher may well lack some 
thing of youthful agility ; and so it is Prosperous business always to 'apprehend', 
imagine and plan, but Ariel's, as angel, to act. 1 

'In apprehension how like a god !' makes, therefore, perfect Shakespearian 
sense. We remember Hamlet's thought that if man's sole activities are to 
'sleep and feed* he is no better than a 'beast' : 

Sure, He that made us with such large discourse, 

Looking before and after, gave us not 

That capability and god-like reason 

To fust in us unused. (iv. iv. 36) 

Here 'reason', if we remember the context (Fortinbras* mad yet noble enter 
prise), though not to be limited to intuition, yet certainly contains the intui 
tional, emotional quality covered by 'apprehension' and is later carefully 
distinguished from 'thinking too precisely on the event* (iv. iv. 4.1); that is, 
from the reason of pure rationalism ; though it is, too, really rather Hamlet's 
'apprehension 'of Fortinbras* nobility with which we are concerned, Fortinbras 
himself being more active (and angelic). Here 'god-like reason* is contrasted 
with 'bestial oblivion' (iv. iv. 40) : it is that which links man to the gods. Such 
too, is the 'noble and most sovereign reason' (HI. i. 166) whose loss in Hamlet 
raises Ophelia's lovely lines 'like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh'. 
Gods alone can master and possess in steady wisdom the swift oncapturabk 
agonies of intuition. Therefore 

to be wise and love 
Exceeds man's might; that dwells with gods above. 

(Trot Jus and CnessMa, HI. ii. 163) 

It is, however, through approach to such inclusive wisdom that men become 
god-like. The over-ruling wisdom of the Duke in Mt&sufc for Measure, a 

* For a relevant piece of scholastic thought directly applicable in to Utter half to both 
Prospero and Ariel compare the following (italic* m : ne) : 

Of fhe angels there are, according to Dionysius, three hierarchies comprising each three 
orders, . . . Now regarding their natures and offices, we may say that the Seraphim excel 
all others in that they are united with God himself; 'the Cherubim know the divine secrets'; 
and the Thrones know immediately the 'types of things in God 1 . Domination* appoint 
those things which are to be done; Virtues give the power of execution and rub- vwr 
corporeal Nature in the toorking ofmfradfs\ Powers order how what ha* been commanded 
can be accomplished, and coerce evil spirits. Principalities and Archangels are the leaders 
in execution, and Angeh tintfJj perform wkat a to fa <hne. W. C. Curry, $**k<j**re's 
Philosophical Patterns, p. 70. 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 

precursor of Prospero, is naturally compared to 'power divine* {v. i. 370). 
Cerimon is such, another, remarking 

I hold it ever 

Virtue and cunning were endowments greater 

Than nobleness and riches; careless heirs 

May the two latter darken and expend, 

But immortality attends the former, 

Making a man a god. (Pericles, in. ii. 26) 

Shakespeare sees man as god-like in relation to certain definite faculties. The 
Quarto's 'How like a god' is, as an uncompromising and unqualified state 
ment, surely suspect : man is god-like not absolutely but in his one faculty of 
'apprehension*. 1 

We must keep the whole speech before us. Our excerpt starts with 'What 
a piece of work is a man P Hamlet sees man as a created being. Moreover, 
the lines continue, after 'In apprehension how like a god', with 'The beauty 
of the world, the paragon of animals*. Throughout, as the speech's opening 
lines on earth and firmament make clear, Hamlet is envisaging man as a 
wondrous upstart from nature, a triumph of creation. Now the Quarto 'How 
like a god !' (meaning clearly how like God in comparison with 'angel') makes 
a transcendent rlimaT which the concluding phrases ('The beauty of the 
world', 'the paragon of animals*) tend to destroy ; a climax, too, inherently 
unsuitable to the whole speech, concerned with man as part of creation. In the 
Folio, however, they merely complete, with a balanced phraseology, the 
natural meaning of what precedes, 'the beauty of the world* referring mainly 
to man's angelic outside, while 'paragon of animals' suits rather that faculty 
of divine imagination (in the Coleridgean or Shelleyan sense) that distinguishes 
him from the animal creation. 

My contention is that Hamlet, in surveying man's various attributes, char 
acterizes, by his comparison of man to an angel, all those excellences of out 
ward beauty, grace, poise, artistry and valour that are elsewhere his concern ; 
but, by his comparison of man's 'apprehension' to a god, advances to a more 
inward consideration (rather as in the move from his address to the Players to 
his speech to Horatio), characterizing here rather his own potentialities at 
their best; while his tragedy lies in his inability to harmonize his own god-like 
faculties with the angelic world of fine action and gracious behaviour; though, 
as we have seen, there is, in the final act, a synthesis. 

I may therefore be excused for once again returning to this defence. To 
assure fairness, I conclude by quoting Professor Dover Wilson's own best 
piece of evidence, adduced in his recent review of Professor Alexander's 
lecture (Review of English Studies, January, 1947, p. 78). Professor Dover 
Wilson quotes from Pater's translation of Pico della Mirandola's Oratio de 
Hominh Digxitatt: 

It is a commonplace of the Schools that man is a little World,, in which 

we may discern a body mingled of earthly elements and ethereal breath, 

* Perhaps the clearest exposition of Shakespeare's general meaning will be found in 
Marlowe's famous lines from Tambttrlaine: 

Oar souls, whose faculties can comprehend 
The wondrous architecture of the stars . . . 



TWO NOTES ON THE TEXT OF HAMLET 343 

and the vegetable life of plants, and the sense of the lower animal^ and 
reason, and the intelligence of angels, and a likeness to God. 

I cannot myself accept this as evidence. Even though we grant, which is far 
from probable, that this passage was a 'source' of Shakespeare's lines, yet surely 
we know that such a poet uses his sources not for direct transcription but for 
re-creation ; that his mind is at every instant vigorously at work *in the quick 
forge and working-house of thought*, modifying and re-distributing; and 
that, given such a speech for regrafting, he will quite certainly change the 
detail to suit his own artistic, or other, instincts.* How steady Shakespeare's 
imaginative correspondences are my quotations, here and elsewhere, have 
shown. Why should the chain of correspondences be broken on this solitary 
occasion ? I have not referred to a concordance : but is there, I may with some 
confidence ask, any passage in Shakespeare that conflicts with my argument? 
It is not my intention to attack Elizabethan scholarship, as such; least of all 
the enthusiastic, and indeed infectious, scholarship of Professor Dover Wilson, 
who has probably done more *h anyone else in our generation to make the 
Elizabethan age a lively reality to scholar and public alike. But in that very 
wealth of knowledge, so lightly carried and happily expressed, lies a danger: 
the danger, on occasion, of letting scholarship dominate, rather than serve, the 
literature it handles. And yet it is, I well realize, no slight reversal for which, 
here and elsewhere, I am contending. I suggest that it may be positively 
dangerous to read a great writer in the light of his age; it is safer, to my mind, 
to read the age in the light of the great writer. For what, after all, do we mean 
by historical 'scholarship' or 'learning' as applied to literature ? Inevitably, I 
think, we refer to either (i) second-hand information and deduction or (ii) 
second-rate books. But neither must take precedence over the immediate and 
present fact of the living, first-rate, text. We must be wary of interpreting the 
higher in terms of the lower which it so far outspaces. 

* For analysis of the subtleties involved in a poet's use of his 'sources' see J. Livingston 
Lowes' Rood to Xanadu and W. F. Jackson Knight's Raman Vtrgil. 'In general, a* with 
Coleridge', writes my brother of Vergil, 'nothing at all was ever reproduced entirely without 
alteration* (in. 79). These two studies are directly relevant both here and also to the 
matter of multiple sources discussed* in Note A above. 



G. Wilson Knight is Emeritus Professor of English 
Literature in the University of Leeds and formerly 
Chancellor' s Professor of English at Trinity College, 
Toronto. Although he is the author of some eighteen 
works, those dealing specifically with Shakespeare are: 
The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Shake 
spearean Tempest, The Mutual Fkme, and Principles 
of Shakespearean Production. 



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HOLL, KARL The Cultural Significance of the Reformation. LA25 
INGE, w. R. Christian Mysticism. LA3 
LEFEVER, ERNEST; MORGENTHAU, HANS (INTRO.) Ethics and United 

States Foreign Policy. LA 19 
MARTY, MARTIN E. The Infidel: Freethought and American 

Religion. LA34 

MARTY, MARTIN E. A Short History of Christianity. u&4 
NIEBUHR, H. RICHARD The Social Sources of Denominationalism. 

LAII 

NIEBUHR, REINHOLD An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. LAI 
NIEBUHR, REINHOLD Essays in Applied Christianity. LA26 
NIEBUHR, REINHOLD Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed 

Cynic. LA 13 
NOSS, LUTHER (ED.) Christian Hymns. LA38 

OESTERLEY, W. O. E., AND ROBINSON, THEODORE H. An Introduction 

to the BooJ(s of the Old Testament. LA23 

OGDEN, SCHUBERT M. (ED.) Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings 
of Rudolf Buhmann. 



OTTO, RUDOLF Mysticism East and West. LA 14 

ROWLEY, H. H. The Unity of the Bible. LAi6 

SAYERS, DOROTHY L. The Mind of the Matter. LA2 

TALON, HENRI A. God's Knotty Log: Selected Writings of John 

Bunyan. LA3I 

THOMPSON, BARD (ED.) Uturgies of the Western Church. LA35 
TILLICH, PAUL The Religious Situation. LA6 
TROELTSCH, ERNEST Christian Thought. LA 12 
VISSER 'T HOOFT, w. A. Rembrandt and the Gospel. LA3O 

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH Religion in the Making. LA28 

WILLIAMS, CHARLES The Descent of the Dove. LA5 

Of Jewish Interest (Jewish Publication Society 
Series) 

ABRAHAMS, ISRAEL Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. JP4 

ASCH, SHOLEM Kiddtish Ha-Shem and Sabbatai Zevi. jpp 

BAECK, LEO Judaism and Christianity. JP2$ 

BARON, SALO w. Modern Nationalism and Religion. jpi8 

BEIN, ALEX Theodore Herzl. JP30 

BUBER, MARTIN For the Sa%e of Heaven. JPI 

DUBNOW, SIMON Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and 

New Judaism. JP2O 

FINKELSTEIN, LOUIS Afyiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr. JP25 
GINZBERG, LOUIS On Jewish Law and Lore. jpz6 
GINZBERG, LOUIS Students, Scholars and Saints. JP2 
GRAYZEL, SOLOMON A History of the Contemporary Jews. jpi6 
HA-'AM, AHAD Selected Essays. JP29 
HERBERG, WILL Judaism and Modern Man. JPIO 
HERTZBERG, ARTHUR (ED.) The Zionist Idea. JPI7 
HESCHEL, ABRAHAM JOSHUA God in Search of Man. JP7 
HESCHEL, ABRAHAM JOSHUA The Earth Is the Lord's and The 

Sabbath. JP28 

HUSIK, ISAAC A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy. j?3 
KORN, BERTRAM w. American Jewry and the Civil War. JP24 
LEWY, HANS; ALTMANN, ALEXANDER; AND HEINEMANN, ISAAK (EDS.) 

Three Jewish Philosophers. JPI3 
LIPTZIN, SOLOMON Germany's Stepchildren, jpip 
MARCUS, JACOB R. The Jew in the Medieval World. JPI4 

MARGOLIS, MAX, AND MARX, ALEXANDER A History of the Jewish 

People. jp6 



MODDER, MONTAGU FRANK The Jew in the Literature of England. 

JPI5 
PARKES, JAMES The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue. 

JP2I 

ROTH, CECIL A History of the Marranos. jpi2 

SAMUEL, MAURICE Prince of the Ghetto. JPI j 

SCHECHTER, SOLOMON Studies in Judaism. j?5 

SPIEGEL, SHALOM Hebrew Reborn. JP27 

STRACK, HERMANN L. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. 

jp8 
TRACHTENBERG, JOSHUA The Devil and the Jews. JP22 

Natural Sciences 

DANTO, ARTHUR, AND MORGENBESSER, SIDNEY (EDS.) Philosophy of 

Science. Mpo 

DAMPIER, WILLIAM CECIL A Shorter History of Science. M47 
GALTON, FRANCIS Hereditary Genius- MIJ4 
IRVINE, WILLIAM Apes, Angels f and Victorians. Mj8 
KOHLER, WOLFGANG The Place of Value in a World of Facts. 

MGIp 

NORTHROP, F. s. c. The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities. 



PEARSON, KARL The Grammar of Science. ML7 

Genera/ and Reference 

BOLTIN, LEE Jail Keys Made Here and Other Signs, MG2I 
ELAM, SAMUEL MILTON Hornbool^ jor the Double Damned. MG47 
JEFFERY, GRANT Science & Technology Stocks: A Guide jor 

Investors. MG4I 

KIRSCHBAUM, LEO Clear Writing. MG38 
The Meridian Compact Atlas of the World. MI26 
SEYFFERT, OSCAR Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. MG34 
SIMON, KATE New Yor% Places & Pleasures: Revised Edition. 



Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language 
( Concise Edition ) . MG25 



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